Who Is In Charge

JBC tosses around touchy scenarios

Closing colleges or privatizing universities are radioactive issues that Colorado legislators don’t much like to talk about, but the Joint Budget Committee members and others were forced to do just that on Wednesday.

They learned closing colleges could save less than you might think, and letting universities go private would require breathtaking tuition hikes.

Scenarios for those two things were part of a briefing paper presented to the committee during a hearing that formally opened JBC consideration of state higher education spending in 2010-11, one of the many very tough issues lawmakers face in trying to balance that budget.

CapJBCLogos111809Spending on colleges and universities, neither partially protected like K-12 funding nor mandated like Medicaid and some other state-federal programs, took a beating during the recession at the start of the decade and has taken an even harder blow during the current downturn.

The higher ed budget is being held together with federal stimulus funds, but those run out after the 2010-11 budget year.

Here’s a little budget history:

  • In 2008-09 state colleges received about $555 million in state tax funds, $151 million in stimulus money and $1.2 billion in tuition revenue.
  • For the current 2009-10 budget, declining state revenues have forced Gov. Bill Ritter to propose trimming state tax support in the middle of the year to about $330 million and backfilling with $376 million in federal money. (Tuition revenue is roughly $1.3 billion.)
  • In 2010-11, conditions in the stimulus law will require the state to take tax support back up to $555 million, but there will be only about $95 million left in stimulus cash. Overall higher ed spending would remain stable at about $1.9 billion, but only with the help of yet another 9 percent tuition increase.

Eric Kurtz, the JBC staff analyst who handles higher ed, outlined those familiar figures and tough choices during the two-hour briefing Wednesday afternoon.

But things got more interesting when he turned to four “briefing issues” – closing colleges, privatizing universities, proportional cuts to all colleges and eliminating the $8.2 million in financial aid given to students who attend private Colorado colleges and trade schools. (JBC staff analysts regularly give the committee such background on budget alternatives for information and discussion, not necessarily as recommendations.)

Kurtz wrote a closing scenario that used Northeastern Junior College in Sterling as an example, and he built his privatization scenario around the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Closing and privatization are possibilities that sometimes are mentioned around the Capitol but which to date haven’t been discussed seriously because of their political sensitivity.

Such sensitivity was clearly on display Wednesday as lawmakers reacted to Kurtz’ scenarios.

“I think we need to close two or three four-year institutions,” said Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. He warned that starvation budgets could threaten the accreditation of major campuses. “If we want to defend the accreditation of some of our larger institutions, which smaller institutions do we close?”

Romer suggested the JBC hire a consultant to study every state college, one by one, and examine the budgetary and economic implications of closure.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, piped up that the same sort of triage should be done for all state agencies.

Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, warned, “We also have to consider the ripple economic effect. For some communities their community college is the major employer.” (Romer, McNulty and Court were among several non-JBC members who sat in on the briefing.)

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, seemed uncomfortable with the whole discussion, saying, “For the record, I don’t know of any proposal to close any college.”

“This is a dead serious conversation,” Romer replied. “We’re at the tipping point where these decisions have to be made.”

“Sen. Romer, let’s take this discussion up later,” Pommer said.

(Pommer earlier had joked with Kurtz, saying that next time he created such a scenario it should perhaps be for a fictional institution, like “Mars Community College.”)

Here’s a brief rundown on Kurtz’ two scenarios. (Use the link below to read his full analyses.)

Closure – Northeastern Junior College: Kurtz said he chose the college as an example because it has a relatively high cost per student. Direct state support is now about $4.5 million a year (not counting the federal aid). But, if even 40 percent of students went to another state college and drew support there, the savings would be reduced, plus the state would have to pick up Northeastern’s debt. Net savings would be only about $2.4 million, Kurtz calculated. And, that doesn’t include the loss of tax revenue from out-of-work college employees and broader losses to the economy in northeastern Colorado. Northeastern is the third largest employer in the region.

(One interesting sidelight to Kurtz’ report was his comment that Northeastern students could drive 40 minutes to Sidney, Neb., and find cheaper tuition at the community college there – even as non-residents – than they pay in Colorado.)

Privatization – CU-Boulder: Kurtz calculated that the campus could replace state tax support (but not federal stimulus money) and “go private” in just two years – but doing so would require 18 percent tuition increases for Colorado students in each of those years.

Tuition hikes would have to rise to 22.5 percent a year if CU followed current state policy and set aside 20 percent of new tuition revenue for increased financial aid.

Boulder is the campus most frequently mentioned when privatization comes up. Most recently the idea was kicked around in a legislative study committee last summer. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by CU President Bruce Benson and committee chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, a staunch CU supporter.

Department of Higher Education officials will appear before the JBC at another hearing in early December to answer budget questions.

Read the full briefing paper

  • Closing colleges scenario – page 23
  • Privatization scenario – page 27
  • Proportional reductions scenario – page 31
  • Cutting financial aid for students at private colleges scenario – page 34

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.