School funding package wrapped up with a bow on final day

The 2014-15 school finance package finished where it started, in the House, on the final day of the 2014 legislative session Wednesday.

House members accepted the conference committee report on House Bill 14-1298, the School Finance Act, and re-passed it 44-21, ending for this year a debate that began in the wake of Amendment 66’s defeat last November.

“It’s been quite a journey, starting before the session began and ending on the last day,” said sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon and chair of the House Education Committee.

“The process has been totally amazing,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and another architect of the finance package. “On both sides of the aisle there is something for us to love and something for us to hate.”

Improving state revenues, along with the realization that no new funds would be coming from Amendment 66, sharply focused the education community this session on the goal of increasing K-12 support as much as possible. Their top objective was buying down part of the state’s $1 billion school funding shortfall, a product of the last recession.

That drive got tangled in debates over funding for preschool and kindergarten, English language learners, literacy programs, and even whether to spend $3 million for a website containing school and district spending information.

The final disagreement was over how much money to drain from the State Education Fund to pay for this year’s spending spree. That was resolved by a House-Senate conference committee whose plan was approved by the Senate Tuesday night and the House on Wednesday morning. That plan changed both parts of HB14-1298 and other spending bills. (Get background on the deal in this story.)

Lawmakers are boasting that spending package increases K-12 funding by more than $400 million, although an exact total is elusive because it depends on which bills are included.

Reporters packed Senate President Morgan Carroll’s office for a final briefing on the legislature’s last day. (Chalkbeat Colorado)

The bottom line is this. The package increases Total Program Funding, the combination of state and local spending that pays for basic school operations, to $5.91 billion in 2014-15 from $5.76 billion this year. That means statewide average per pupil spending of about $7,020 next year compared to $6,839 in the current school year. Most of the increase is provided by the automatic escalator in the constitution. But lawmakers also reduced the shortfall (known as the negative factor) by $110 million.

Other major elements of the multi-bill package add funding to existing special programs, including:

  • $27 million for English language learner programs
  • $18 million for funding of the READ Act, which provides special services to K-3 students behind in reading
  • $17 million to provide 5,000 additional slots for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students
  • Up to $11.5 million for charter school facilities costs
  • $3 million for the Colorado Counselor Corps
  • $3 million to pay for the financial transparency website
  • $2 million for boards of cooperative education services to assist member districts in implementing recent education reforms
  • $1.6 million for gifted and talented programs

Smooth path for the last education bills

A handful of other education bills were on the calendar for the 2014 session’s 120th and final day. They were measures that required one chamber to accept amendments added by the other. Here’s the rundown:

Board executive sessions – The House accepted Senate amendments and re-passed Senate Bill 14-182, 37-28. The bill requires school boards to keep minutes of executive sessions. Those minutes must include the topics discussed and the length of time spent on each. The proposal sparked repeated disagreements over lawyer-client confidentiality, local control of schools, and the conduct of the Douglas and Jefferson county school boards. A different, earlier version of the bill died because of lack of support in the Senate.

School closures – House Bill 14-1381 was re-passed 38-27. It sets requirements for certain procedures districts will have to follow when closing schools for low academic performance.

Online education – The House vote 45-20 for House Bill 14-1382, whose main provision launches a task force to study how mult-district online schools are overseen.

College scholarships – House Bill 14-1384, passed 62-3 by the House, creates a new college scholarship and student advising program paid for with $33 million in previously-unused funds, earned when the state sold its college loan portfolio. Students won’t see any money until 2016.

Teacher pensions – Senate Bill 14-214 will commission three financial studies of the Public Employees Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers and many other civil servants. The outcome of those studies could set the stage for important PERA debates in the 2016 legislative session. The final Senate vote was 35-0.