A bill that proposes changes in how districts handle turnaround schools drew lots of interest in the Senate Education Committee but was pulled off the table Thursday at the sponsor’s request.

Andrea Merida
DPS board member Andrea Merida testified in favor of a turnaround schools bill on Feb. 24, 2011. Sponsor Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is behind her.

Witnesses supporting the bill included critics of the Denver Public Schools’ reform plans in Far Northeast Denver and the Colorado Education Association. Opponents included officials of the Department of Education and leaders of education reform groups. The 14 witnesses were equally divided pro and con.

Senate Bill 11-080 sponsor Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, seemed a bit uncomfortable about her bill being tied to the long-running DPS controversy. After testimony had ended, she told her fellow committee members, “I don’t want this bill to be about Denver Public Schools or the Far Northeast neighborhood.”

Later, she told Education News Colorado, “I don’t want to make this about Montbello High School.” A split DPS board last year approved a massive restructuring of schools in the Montbello attendance area; see this story for background.

The bill would require a school board to conduct a public meeting before adopting a turnaround plan and also require that a summary of the meeting along with any recommendations by the school accountability committee be submitted to the Department of Education along with the board’s turnaround plan.

The bill also would add two options to the list of strategies used for turnaround schools – clustering of schools in a geographic area and use of various research-based strategies, such as teacher professional development. (Bill text and legislative staff summary.)

DPS board member Andrea Merida testified for the bill, repeatedly referring to the Montbello area controversy. She said, “This bill will allow a voice for parents.” If the bill had been in effect two years ago, she argued, “We could have had a much more collaborative process” and DPS would have been “compelled to have” genuine stakeholder input.

Merida has been a persistent critic of reform initiatives by DPS administration and the current board majority. District administration is on record opposing the bill, according to a Jan. 20 filing with the secretary of state by lobbyist Tanya Kelly-Bowry.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver (file photo)

Committee member Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, politely disagreed with Merida’s view of the Montbello controversy, saying, “Even though we may have disagreed on the outcome, Landri and others made sure it [public comment] was very, very robust.”

Johnston, one of the legislature’s leading education reform proponents, was referring to Landri Taylor, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and longtime northeast Denver activist. Taylor testified against the bill.

“You’re saying the current system works and you’re part of it?” asked committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

“Yes,” Taylor replied.

Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of education, conveyed to the committee the State Board of Education’s formal opposition to the bill. “We are not supportive of additional requirements on districts at a time when we are trying to reduce requirements.” Wenning added that the bill isn’t necessary, saying, “The options in this bill are already permitted by law.”

Representatives of Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and Colorado Succeeds also opposed the bill.

After the nearly two hours of testimony ended, Hudak asked Bacon to take the bill off the table so she could “work with the stakeholders to try to come up with a better plan than this first draft.” He quickly agreed.

The bill has an interesting set of cosponsors, including Bacon and committee member Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County. Other Senate cosponsors include Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs; Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo and sponsor of the undocumented students tuition bill; Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver and a former DPS board member; and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and a former education committee member.

While not signed on to the bill, committee member Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, seemed sympathetic Thursday. “I don’t see why this is such a big deal,” he said of the state board’s objections to the bill.

The only House sponsors are Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora and a retired teacher, and freshman Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs. The measure has no Republicans signed on.

Another pending measure, House Bill 11-1126, also would require districts to formally notify parents of a school’s turnaround designation and hold public hearings. Provisions requiring districts to adopt parent involvement policies were stripped from the bill, which now merely “encourages” districts to do that.

The amended bill received final House floor approval earlier this week. Its sponsors are freshman Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a former union official, and Hudak.

A hard week

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster (file photo)

Hudak has had a tough few days promoting her bills.

After SB 11-080 was heard, she presented Senate Bill 11-070 to the committee. The latter measure proposed that the comprehensive services that developmentally disabled high school students receive through individual education plans be carried into college.

There’s been resistance to the bill from higher education, and Hudak acknowledged Thursday that it may conflict with federal law.

She offered an amendment that dramatically changes the bill, removing its requirements and merely adding higher education representatives to the existing state Special Education Advisory Committee and assigning that committee to study issues related to disabled college students.

On Wednesday, Hudak’s Senate Bill 11-069 also got turned into a study assignment for yet another panel, the Charter School and Charter Authorizer Standards Review Committee. The bill originally proposed that CDE regulate educational management organizations, the companies and non-profits often used to manage charter schools.