Who Is In Charge

Bills move, shrink, die

Bills proposing a minimum amount of physical activity for elementary school students and making it slightly easier for charter schools to use district buildings advanced in the Colorado legislature Wednesday.

Those two bills featured skirmishing over the eternal issue of local control of schools, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue.

Later action came in two House committees, where a plan to revamp the board of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association was passed and a bill trying to nudge schools towards greater energy efficiency was killed.

Also Wednesday, two Democratic Joint Budget Committee members introduced Senate Bill 11-184, which would create a 60-day tax amnesty next summer during which people who owe back state taxes could pay them without incurring penalties and at half the normal interest rate.

Revenue from the amnesty, estimated at about $15 million, would go to the State Education Fund. Legislative Democrats, hoping to blunt Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in 2011-12 school spending, are looking for spare change anywhere they can find it, and the measure is the first bill on the issue.

The sponsors are Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, both of Denver, along with a lengthy list of Democratic cosponsors in both houses.

Wednesday snapshots

  • Mandatory physical activity in elementary schools – House Bill 11-1069 was passed 6-2 by the Senate Education Committee.
  • Charter school access to vacant district buildings – House Bill 11-1055 won preliminary House floor approval on a voice vote.
  • Membership changes for the PERA board – House Bill 11-1248 was passed 7-6 by the House Finance Committee.
  • Energy-efficient schools – House Bill 11-1204 was postponed indefinitely on a 5-3 party-line vote by the House State Affairs Committee.

Wednesday details

Physical activity bill chewed over but passes

Some of the yes votes were lukewarm, but the Senate Education Committee Wednesday voted 6-2 for House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require at least 10 hours a month of physical activity for elementary school students.

Representatives of the Colorado Health Foundation, the Colorado Public Health Association and the Colorado Children’s Campaign all testified in favor of the bill, citing statistics about the growing problem of childhood obesity and the health benefits of physical activity.

But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, urged committee members to vote against the bill. “CASB’s opposition and the opposition of our members have nothing to do with the research” about youth obesity,” Urschel said. “There’s no question that we are in the middle of an epidemic of fatness.”

“We do not believe it is the state’s role to tell districts how to use their time.”

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said, “I’m a little surprised you’re still opposing it,” given that the House stripped out lengthy requirements for data districts would have had to report to the state.

Urschel said, “We do worry about how it will go in future years,” raising the fear that future legislatures will add to mandates established by the bill.

“I don’t understand what the big burden is,” said Hudak, noting that the bill includes a very broad definition of physical activity, including students walking around while on field trips. “In fact, it is way too weak,” Hudak said.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said to Urschel, “I don’t know what you’re afraid of. … It’s not a mandate in the sense that you’re thinking about it.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, agreed the bill is “so watered down” but said the issue should be left to local school boards.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, commented, “I don’t think it’s going to make one bit of difference if the bill passes or not in terms of children getting exercise.” Local school officials are “going to roll their eyes and say, ‘Here comes something else. Can’t the state leave us alone?’”

Renfroe and Spence were the only no votes on the bill. All committee Democrats plus Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, voted for it. Heath and King indicated they were lukewarm supporters.

Freshman Rep. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver and a doctor, is Senate prime sponsor of the bill.

After the hour of discussion, chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, jokingly asked Aguilar, “Senator, do you want to come back to Education?”

“Never again,” Aguilar joked.

Charter facilities bill keeps shrinking

Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield

While Democrats were voting against local control and Republicans were supporting it in Senate Education, the roles were reversed on the floor of the House.

As originally introduced by freshman Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, HB 11-1055 would have allowed charter schools to request use of vacant district buildings and land and, if refused, appeal to the Department of Education. If the department ruled the building was suitable for a school, the charter would get it rent-free. There was a similar provision giving Charter School Institute schools access to vacant state land and buildings.

The bill is a legislative priority for the Colorado League of Charter Schools but has raised concerns among other groups. The House Education Committee amended the bill to take vacant land out of the measure and require charters to pay CDE for the costs of building evaluations.

On the floor Wednesday, Beezley said his measure “is a simple, humble bill. … Essentially it lets a public school occupy a public school building. … I would urge we not let those assets go to waste.”

Beezley then proceeded to slenderize the bill further with successful amendments that took state buildings out of the measure entirely, created an additional appeal process to the State Board of Education by either a charter or district and established an exemption for districts that have long-term facilities plans that include charter schools.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, opposed the bill

House Democrats said that last amendment was so significant that the bill ought to go back to House Ed for a more deliberate review than could be provided on the floor. 
That transfer attempt failed after lengthy debate.

Some Democrats’ comments had a districts vs. charters tone, and at one point House Ed Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, went to the microphone to say, “What we keep losing sight of is that charter schools are public schools.”

As with the physical activity bill, the measure’s potential impact would appear to be limited. A legislative staff analysis estimates there are 20 vacant buildings in six districts around the state, with an average of 10 new charters opening a year.

PERA board overhaul advances

The House Finance Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday evening to send House Bill 11-1248 to the floor, but comments by two Republicans who voted yes indicate sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, still has some convincing to do.

The bill would change the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association board to six outside members appointed by the governor, seven association members and the state treasurer.

The current board has three gubernatorial appointees, the treasurer and 11 elected association members.

Kerr, a critic of last year’s PERA reform legislation who has doubts about the association’s plan to achieve solvency in 30 years, believes taxpayers deserve a greater voice on the board.

New Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton testified for the bill, saying, “This is not a critique of PERA’s current board. What it is about is ensuring diversity.”

A handful of PERA retirees and board chair Carole Wright opposed the bill, saying they fear the change would politicize the board.

That seemed to strike a chord with Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “The question is which composition of the board is best to resist political pressures. I’m not sure appointees are the best ones to do that.”

Board members are trustees with the fiduciary responsibility to oversee pension fund investments. Contribution rates and benefits can be changed only by the legislature. Some past legislative decisions have had nasty consequences in economic downturns.

Swalm voted yes but specified that was “only for now.” Freshman Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, also voted yes and also said “only for now.”

The committee spent nearly three hours on the bill Wednesday evening – on top of 4 ½ hours spent earlier on other bills.

Energy efficiency bill strikes out for second year

Rep. Andy Kerr, R-Lakewood, didn’t get very far with his 2010 proposal that new schools be built to Energy Star standards.

His milder 2011 plan, House Bill 11-1204, met the same fate Wednesday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which killed it 5-3. This year’s bill would have required schools built or significantly renovated after Jan. 1, 2012, meet federal Energy Star standards, be designed in consultation with the Governor’s Energy Office or have a design team that includes at least one person skilled in energy efficiency.

Kerr got a polite and lengthy hearing from the committee, but various Republican members weren’t impressed with the idea, saying many school districts and architects are already designing energy efficient buildings and so there’s no need for a state mandate.

Lobbyist Jason Hopfer testified against the bill on behalf of the Douglas County School District.

For the record

Lawmakers Wednesday acted on several other education bills, many of them minor or technical. Bills of interest included:

  • House Bill 11-1169 on sharing of threat information by campus police – House 47-18 final approval
  • Senate Bill 11-029 on streamlining of reports by the State Land Board (the manager of state school lands) – Passed 13-0 by House Education Committee.

House Bill 11-1048, the proposal to allow families to take tax credits for private school tuition or the costs of home schooling, was again laid over in the House Finance Committee.

Sponsor Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, told Education News Colorado the bill will be heard Thursday. In a bid to get the bill out of committee, Swalm said he will offer an amendment requiring students to spend a year in public school before becoming eligible for the credit and another amendment that would slightly reduce the tax credit and give districts $500 for each student they lose because of the program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information

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.