“It’s haircut day” for school finance bills

A House-Senate conference committee on Monday nipped and tucked various elements of the 2014-15 School Finance Act and snapped up about $30 million in federal mineral revenues for school spending, reaching a compromise in the dispute over how to pay for a stack of this year’s education bills.

The compromise version of House Bill 14-1298 passed 5-1 and must now be approved by both the House and Senate.

Although some lobbyists were working as late as Monday morning trying to avoid some program cuts, the compromise plan is expected to gain final approval without much more contention. The controversy surfaced late last week (see this story for details). Lawmakers have to adjourn Wednesday.

The goal of the compromise is to reduce the amount of money to be taken from the State Education Fund, a dedicated account that’s used for both general K-12 support and for special programs.

The compromise plan would leave about $660 million in the fund at the end of 2014-15, the target that the Hickenlooper administration wants. Without the cuts and shifts in the compromise plan, the balance would be $612 million, said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and the architect of the compromise plan.

He said the plan is designed “to make sure we leave the State Education Fund with a sufficient balance to fulfill the commitments we’ve made in the future. … There’s a lot of pressure on the fund; one of our objectives is to trim back a little bit.”

“There are several programs getting a haircut,” said Steadman, who came to the conference committee with the plan in hand. The meeting lasted less than 15 minutes. Steadman, a prime sponsor of the finance act, also is vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee and one of the legislature’s fiscal experts.

Here’s how various elements of the bill (and some related measures) fared in the barber’s chair.

Negative factor: The proposed buy-down of the state’s $1 billion K-12 funding shortfall remains at $110 million. School districts have fought ferociously this session to whittle down the negative factor, and any attempt to tinker with this number would have ignited a political and lobbying firestorm.

Kindergarten support: The Senate added $10 million to the bill to slightly increase the amount the state pays for kindergarten students, which is .58 of per-pupil funding for other students. Steadman’s plan cuts the $10 million. Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, suggested $5 million, but the conference committee didn’t agree. Eliminating the increase was “a bit more than a haircut,” Kerr complained. He was the only no vote on the compromise plan.

English language learners: The conference committee approved a $27 million increase in funding for ELL programs, trimming the $30 million originally in the bill.

Early literacy funding: The conference committee approved an $18 million increase to the $16 million currently spent on the READ Act, cutting by $2 million the original plan for a $20 million boost. (This spending actually is in House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, but it’s possible to change that with language by amending HB 14-1298.)

Counselor Corps: This program will get only $3 million in additional funding, not the $5 million contained in Senate Bill 14-150. (The program’s current funding is $5 million.) This also is being changed through HB 14-1298, like the literacy funding.

What makes the whole plan work is use of $30.4 million from yet another account, the State Public School Fund, replacing money that would have come from the education fund. Steadman said budget analysts discovered last week that the $30.4 million, generated by federal mineral lease revenues, was available.

Several other separate bills that proposed taking money from education fund already have had their own haircuts, but the amounts of money involved are relatively small.

Two other significant pieces of HB 14-1292 were removed earlier in the intense and prolonged negotiations around school funding. They were a $40 million fund to help districts implement new programs like standards, testing and evaluations and $10 million for implementation of the average daily membership method of counting school enrollment.

There was significant controversy late in the session over a part of HB 14-1292 that proposed creation of a state website containing searchable information about school and district spending. School districts had opposed the plan, but a compromise approved by both houses last week budgets $3 million for the website and removes some requirements that districts didn’t like. (Get more details in this story.)

Several smaller spending elements of the Success Act and the Finance Act weren’t caught in the “haircuts” and remain in the bills. Major items include:

  • A $17 million increase for at-risk preschool and full-day kindergarten students, enough to fund 5,000 more students.
  • Up to $11.5 million in charter facilities funding, plus a $6.5 million infusion for a charter school bond program.
  • $2 million in additional funding for boards of cooperative educational services to help small districts implement reforms.