life support

Partisan bickering puts financial lifeline for rural schools in danger

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that would send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado’s rural schools faces an uncertain future after party leaders in both legislative chambers Thursday accused each other of not negotiating in good faith.

The multifaceted bill is one of the most complicated of the session. It would send money to rural hospitals, roads and schools. But if lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, hospitals would face severe cuts — forcing some in rural areas to close altogether.

What makes Senate Bill 267 so controversial is that the cornerstone of the bill would redesignate a fee collected by the state that helps pay for Medicaid.

The money the state collects from hospital patients is funneled to the state’s general operating budget. The state’s constitution limits how much that pot of money can grow each year. The bill would redirect the hospital fee to an enterprise account that isn’t subject to that constitutional provision.

Democrats have wanted to redesignate the hospital fee since 2015. They believe reclassifying the fee would elevate some budgetary pressures that have forced schools and other state services to be underfunded. Republicans have staunchly opposed the change. They’ve said it would violate the constitution and the will of voters.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, changed his mind this year after seeing the potential cuts to rural hospitals. He introduced the bill with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, and state Reps. K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.

The bill was always a long shot. There are plenty of provisions neither chamber liked. And it would potentially take a coalition of both parties to pass the bill

But a disagreement over whether the state should lower its spending gap in tandem with redesignating the fee has thrown negotiations into further peril.

Early Thursday, Sonnenberg told reporters he was done negotiating with Democrats. He signaled he would kill the bill that was scheduled for a second hearing later in the morning. While he backed away from his threat, he took shots at Democrats.

“We didn’t kill it,” he told Chalkbeat after sparing the bill. “I’m not ready to give up. But I’m close.”

Sonnenberg said he believes he’s given Democrats more than he should, increasing the amount he’d cap government spending at. But that hasn’t been enough for them, he said.
“I want to save hospitals,” he said. “They want more tax dollars.”

Democrats said they’re concerned the bill as written would trigger another round of budget cuts to all government services, including schools

“It puts our budget in problem territory in no time at all,” said Becker, the Boulder Democrat.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

House Democrats said they’re hoping to restart negotiations soon and will offer “creative solutions.”

Senate Bill 267 is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

“We are still holding out hope for rural schools,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural Alliance, which represents the state’s rural schools. “We’re grateful to Sen. Sonnenberg and the bill’s other sponsors for their leadership and efforts to bring critical resources to rural communities.”

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”

the fiscal thicket

Everyone hates how Colorado funds its schools. So who is going to fix it?

Students at Manual High School work during class in 2013. (Photo by Marc Piscotty)

Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11, has spent the past few months crisscrossing the state sharing his grave prediction about school funding to anyone who will listen.

His prognostication goes like this: It might not happen this year, or even in next two, but if something drastic doesn’t change, Colorado lawmakers will be forced to slash school funding to historically low levels.

“The system will implode,” he said in an interview.

What’s happening, Gustafson and others agree, is a slow-moving collision involving Colorado tax policy, growing inequities in public schools, and other spending priorities like state’s health insurance program and roads.

Multiple efforts to stave off a financial crisis for Colorado schools are under way, including legislation that would create a committee to develop a new way to fund schools. A cross-section of Colorado school superintendents also have been working behind the scenes to come up with their own method to fund schools. And a new coalition of education advocates is laying the groundwork for a potential 2018 ballot initiative that would send more money to schools.

How the three groups work together to solve one of the state’s thorniest questions is unclear — especially since some lawmakers staunchly oppose a state tax increase for schools. But representatives from each faction say they’re more hopeful than ever that changing the way Colorado funds its schools is possible, even if multiple past efforts have failed.

“We’ve gotten to a common place that everyone realizes what we have is not working,” said Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton School District in Adams County. “We have multiple groups focusing on the problem and we’re all willing to see it from one another’s perspective.”

The perennial debate

The fight over school funding in Colorado — and across the nation — is not new. There have been multiple efforts here during the last decade to change the system, including legislative study sessions, lawsuits and ballot initiatives. All have failed.

Since the Great Recession, when the state was forced to cut spending dramatically, the debate has intensified. But lawmakers and school leaders have been unable to make any substantial changes.

What complicates the school-finance debate in Colorado is a series of constitutional amendments that restrict how much tax revenue the state can spend, how the state collects property taxes and what lawmakers must spend on schools.

The two most recent efforts to flush schools with cash were in 2013 and 2016.

Had Amendment 66 passed in 2013, it would have sent more than $1 billion to schools and triggered a major rewrite of the law that spells out how much each school district gets based on a variety of factors. Voters soundly rejected that ballot question.

Last year, efforts to build enough support to go to the ballot with another measure fizzled.

Recent legal challenges to how Colorado funds schools also have proven fruitless. In 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Colorado’s funding system was adequate, but perhaps could be improved. And in 2016, the state’s highest court found a legislative tool to cut school funding was constitutional.

The state currently funds schools at a deficit of about $800 million. And according to multiple studies, Colorado as a state spends less on schools than most other states.

The formula

How much the state spends on its public schools is one question under scrutiny. How it divides the money is another — and just as contentious.

The formula that determines how much each school receives was written in 1994. Since then, the state has rolled out major reform efforts that include more rigorous standards and graduation requirements. The state’s student demographics have changed, too. Colorado now has more poorer students and students learning English as a second language.

“Education and opportunities are dramatically different today,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican working to change the funding formula. “The funding formula affects how we deliver — in meaningful ways — those opportunities. It’s time to update.”

Lundeen, along with Denver Democrat state Rep. Alec Garnett, has introduced a bill that would establish a committee of 10 lawmakers charged with proposing legislation during the next two years. The bill grants the committee the authority to study and propose changes to tax policy and the formula that divides school funding.

“Coloradans fundamentally are telling the legislature, ‘Do better,’” Garnett said. “We shouldn’t be using a formula from 1994. We should be using a formula that reflects the realities of today.”

Politics over how much each school receives — or doesn’t — are sure to get in the way of policy, both lawmakers said. But they’re resolved to push through a compromise.

“It’s incumbent upon us to bridge the divide,” Lundeen said. “We go in with eyes wide open. We realize it’s going to be tough. But we need to do something.”

A coalition of Colorado superintendents are one step ahead of lawmakers. After meeting privately for three years, they are beginning to share their proposal to fund schools with advocacy groups and lawmakers.

The superintendents are calling for more money for students who are poor, learning English as a second language, are gifted and talented or have learning disabilities. While it does take into account the size and geography of the school, those are lesser factors.

Shifting the focus to student need instead of district characteristics is likely to win favor with lawmakers from both parties. But the price tag will be a likely roadblock. While the school chiefs haven’t added it all up, their formula could easily cost another $1 billion.

That’s likely a nonstarter for Republicans who are convinced the more than $6 billion the state spends on schools is enough.

Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, said the superintendents didn’t create the formula based on what they believe are students’ needs.

“It’s not how much money do we have to start with and how can we back into dividing that,” he said. “It’s really what is the amount needed to do the job we’re expected to do.”

Cooper said the superintendents aren’t living in a fantasy world.

“This is probably an approach and a model we’ll have to grow into over time,” he said.

A new campaign

While lawmakers are poised to debate how to slice the fiscal pie, a coalition of education advocacy groups is laying the groundwork to once again ask voters for more money.

Last week, the Colorado Education Network met for the first time in a ballroom on the University of Denver campus. The new organization is the first byproduct of ongoing conversations about a 2018 ballot question lead by Great Education Colorado, a 14-year-old nonprofit that advocates for school funding.

“Somebody else is not going to fix school funding,” Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, told the room of 250 parents, school leaders and school board members. “It has to be the grassroots to the rescue.”

In an interview, Weil said her organization and its partners haven’t settled on a strategy to increase school funding. But the network — which includes the Colorado Association of School Boards, Padres Unidos y Jovens and the Colorado Children’s Campaign — is a crucial first step.

“The mechanism and vehicles that move us forward have yet to be seen,” she said. “But we know we’re going to have to engage voters one way or the other to invest in schools.”