School districts get tiny bit of good budget news

Current K-12 per-pupil funding would increase very slightly and the state’s $855 million school funding shortfall would shrink by $24.5 million under proposed 2015-16 budget adjustments released late Friday by the Hickenlooper administration.

The proposal is a nod to pleas by superintendents that districts not lose funding in the current school year, but it doesn’t give them all they want.

Although actual per-student funding varies widely by district, the Office of State Planning and Budgeting proposal would increase the current year’s statewide average to $7,312 from $7,294 – $18.

The proposal sent to the Joint Budget Committee essentially would protect districts from losing money because of lower-than-projected enrollment numbers, which could have led to a $24.5 million cut in mid-year cut in school funding.

Instead, the governor is proposing a $24.5 million shrinkage of the negative factor, the amount that K-12 support falls short of projected full funding.

But the plan wouldn’t give districts a bigger chunk of money that they also wanted. The administration is sticking with a $133.5 million reduction in the state’s share of K-12 support this year. That will be covered by a corresponding increase in district property tax revenues. Superintendents don’t want the offset.

The budget committee will consider the proposal and make mid-year budget adjustment recommendations to the full legislature. Those bills usually are considered in February. (See the full OSPB letter at the bottom of this article. School funding is referenced on pages 1, 2, 4 and 7.)

Legislature gets off to leisurely start

Not a lot of other substantive news came out of the Capitol on the first three days of the 2016 legislative session.

Of the 14 education bills introduced, half are retreads of ideas advanced but rejected in recent sessions.

What’s perhaps the most intriguing bill of the week is a new school construction funding idea from Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, who thinks he’s found a way to restart the state’s stalled program of construction grants to schools.

His Senate Bill 16-035 would create a new board to advise on ways to increase investment returns from the state school fund, which receives revenues from leases and royalties on state lands. The principal of the fund can’t be spent, and revenues are earmarked for schools. Johnston said the fund yields about a 2 percent return now.

The new board would be assigned to increase fund earnings enough to pump about $20 million a year into the Building Excellent Schools Today construction grant program. That program hasn’t been able to fund large projects in the last couple of years because it’s reached the current legal limit for annual debt payments.

If the bill passes, Johnston argues, “We’ll find a way to solve the rural school construction problem.” He said he’s lining up Republican sponsors and has support from the State Land Board and Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who have key responsibilities in management of the school fund.

Here’s the rundown on some of the week’s more notable bills:

Less testing – Fort Collins Republican Sen. Vicki Marble, along with a small band of cosponsors, was quick out of the box with a measure to kill state language arts and math tests in 9th grade (Senate Bill 16-005). Testing of 9th graders was in play early in the 2015 testing debate, but Gov. John Hickenlooper and reform lobbying groups drew the line at the idea of cutting those exams. In Thursday’s State of the State speech the governor said he wants to keep 9th grade assessments.

Paying for kindergarten – Republican Jim Wilson in the House and Democrat Andy Kerr in the Senate have been tireless advocates for full-time kindergarten, and they’re both back this year with proposals for state funding. School districts currently receive only 58 percent of per-pupil funding for kindergarten students, even if they attend full-day programs. Districts and – in some cases parents – pick up the rest of the tab.

Wilson’s plan (House Bill 16-1022) would phase in 100 percent funding of kindergarten students who attend full-time. Kerr’s measure (Senate Bill 16-023) also has a phase-in period, with an added twist. He’s proposing that voters be asked to approve lifting the constitutional revenue cap and allow the state to spend revenues above that cap – with most of the new money earmarked for full-day kindergarten.

Early-education advocates have been fighting since at least 2008 to increase state support for both preschool and full-day kindergarten. They’ve had limited success, given the state’s chronic budget problems, and both of this year’s bills face the same hurdle. One kindergarten plan floated last year had a $236 million price tag.

More recycled ideas

Other try-again bills introduced this week include House Bill 16-1016, which proposes a $20 million state grant program to help districts and schools develop “multiple measures” for both rating schools and evaluating teachers. The bill, by Democratic Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, is partly a response to widespread discomfort with the heavy reliance on state test score data for accountability and evaluation. The state currently has a one-year timeout on use of state data for evaluating teachers, so districts have to rely solely on local measures of student academic growth.

Young has retooled the unsuccessful bill he proposed last year, but the price tag on the new plan may be a problem.

New Aurora Democratic Rep. Janet Buckner, appointed to succeed her late husband John, is picking up the torch for giving parents time off from work to attend school activities (House Bill 16-1002). The legislature passed such a law in 2009, but it expired last year.

And a few new ideas

In addition to Johnston’s bill, there are some fresh proposals in the hopper.

A response to the Cañon City High School sexting scandal, bipartisan House Bill 16-1058 would create a new crime of “misuse of electronic images by a juvenile.” A conviction wouldn’t permanently label a person as a sex offender. The Cañon City situation raised fears that charging students under existing law would brand them for life. No charges were filed against students.

Democratic-sponsored House Bill 16-1036 seeks to encourage teaching about the contributions of minority groups in school history and civics classes. A prime sponsor is Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who led a past unsuccessful fight against Indian school mascots. That’s an issue that probably won’t resurface in the legislature, given that the governor has appointed a commission to deal with all that.

Hick’s day in the House chamber

The ceremonial highlight of the week was Hickenlooper’s State of the State speech. He touched on only a handful of education issues. Read our excerpts for everything he had to say on the subject.