Who Is In Charge

Senate passes school finance bill

Updated 5:45 p.m. April 8 – The result was never in doubt, but the 2011-12 school finance act, Senate Bill 11-230, prompted 45 minutes of philosophical debate before the Senate passed it on a preliminary voice vote early Friday evening. A final recorded vote will be taken Monday.

The measure, in combination with other bills, sets total program funding next year at a bit more than $5.1 billion in state and local funds. Current year school funding is $260 million less than school support was in 2009-10.

Sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said, “We’re making the least bad choices. … It is what it is. I wish it were different.”

Several senators followed Bacon to the microphone, some to vent and some to challenge others’ assumptions about school funding. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Sen. Bacon is right that this is probably the least bad we can get, but it’s bad, really bad.” – Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
  • “There’s no way I can vote for this bill.” – Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
  • “It is widely taken for granted that we underfund education. … There is serious reason to question that assumption.” – Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield
  • “I don’t think you can say the state is not spending a lot of money on education.” – Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, argued that something must to be done to increase local funding of schools to reduce the burden on the state. Harvey blamed part of the education funding squeeze on skyrocketing Medicaid costs.

Later in the evening, the Senate passed an amendment to the main budget measure, Senate Bill 11-209, that restores the $5 million funding of the Colorado Counselor Corps. The Joint Budget Committee had recommended cutting the program to $2.5 million. Bacon and King proposed the successful amendment to restore funding, taking the extra cash from the State Education Fund. The bill was passed as amended.

The Senate spent the afternoon working through and approving a long list of budget bills. Others with direct impact on education include:

Senate Bill 11-184, which as amended would set up a tax amnesty next fall during which delinquent taxpayers could pay up. Most of the revenue would go to education. The measure became a mini-Christmas tree bill, with several senators trying to tap into its revenues for other programs.

A couple of those “raids” succeeded, even one that taps some $450,000 to soften cuts in state employee mileage reimbursements in another bill.

Hudak managed to get $30,000 out of the bill to pay for the CDE’s family literacy program, which also was to be cut in another bill.

But a Hudak amendment to take $500,000 to pay for the network or county early childhood councils failed.

After the amendments, the bill would leave a bit more than $8 million for education from the amnesty.

The body also passed Senate Bill 11-218, which closes out several small funds in the Department of Education and sweeps them into the State Education Fund.

(Text of Thursday story follows)

Lawmakers held their noses and voted Thursday for key elements of the 2011-12 state budget package, setting up full Senate floor consideration of several bills on Friday.

The main act of the day was the Senate Appropriations Committee passage of Senate Bill 11-230, the school finance act, by a vote of 9-1. The measure will cut K-12 total program funding for 2011-12 by $250 million from this year’s levels. It also makes permanent the provision that allows lawmakers to reduce school funding when necessary.

While the cut is lower than the $332 million originally proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, nobody’s happy about it.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, is carrying the new school finance bill but isn't happy about it.

Several of the witnesses who testified at the hearing urged lawmakers to find ways to reduce the cut further.

“We’ll continue to see dramatic impacts on students across our state” because of the $250 million cut, said Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association.

She also said, “We have significant problems” with the provision that makes permanent the reduction factor in the school finance formula.

Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Schools Boards, said, “We see it as a sad day when the choice is between a school child and a fee benefit for Walmart.”

She was referring to another piece of the House-Senate budget compromise that reinstates a fee paid to retailers, including big ones such as Walmart, for collecting sales taxes. It was the first time in 17 years that CASB isn’t supporting a school finance bill, she said; it’s neutral this year.

Jason Callegari, representing the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said budget cuts are threatening the flexibility that charter schools prize: “As we project into the future, we don’t see an end to these cuts.”

The hearing, which had been moved to the Capitol’s largest meeting room, drew a smaller crowd that some had expected and lasted only about 90 minutes.

“The situation is as it is,” said sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat and a former teacher and school board member. “Even though none of us really want this, we find that the times are such that it’s the best we can do.”

The only no vote was Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who called the cuts “not only a travesty but a tragedy.” Heath is the promoter of a possible November ballot measure that would raise state income and sales taxes to help fund schools and colleges.

Earlier in the day, the committee approved a long list of other budget measures, including Senate Bill 11-209, the long appropriations bill. See this EdNews story for details on the education components of the budget-balancing package.

Simple task prompts long speeches

Over in the House, members of the State Affairs Committee apparently were more eager to talk Thursday than they were to eat.

After a grueling House floor session, the committee convened over the lunch hour with a very simple assignment – removing from Senate Bill 11-076 an earlier amendment that would have allowed school boards and other local governments to reduce their contributions to the state pension system while requiring employees to increase their payroll deductions.

That amendment was pushed by Republicans who argued such a swap would give school districts more flexibility in a tight budget year. The bill was strongly opposed by unions, who bombarded legislators with a massive email campaign by members.

Even though the school district swap wouldn’t have directly affected the state budget, dropping the idea was part of the House-Senate budget compromise that was reached Tuesday.

The original bill, proposed by the Joint Budget Committee to help balance the budget, continues a separate swap under which the state and higher education institutions save money by reducing their contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association by 2.5 percent. But employees have to pay an additional 2.5 percent. That part of the bill remains intact.

The only witness was Scott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS. He trooped to the witness table to put in a for-the-record plea not to cut state workers’ take-home pay.

His comments sparked a long series of speeches by Democratic and Republican members alike, covering well-worn partisan ground on civil servant pay and pensions. The discussion was polite and even genteel – a faint echo of the union fights taking place in other states – but it consumed an hour of time for an outcome that was predetermined.

The school board amendment was stripped from the bill, and the original bill passed 7-2.

Make a bet for college kids?

A new bill with a familiar subject was introduced Thursday. Senate Bill 11-233 would allow the Colorado Lottery Commission to authorize video gaming terminals at two locations in the state. Net proceeds would go to higher education scholarships.

The sponsors are Democratic Sens. Mary Hodge of Brighton and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton; there are no House sponsors signed on yet.

Video-gaming proposals are something of a late-session favorite. Last year, then-Sen. Chris Romer – now running for mayor of Denver – floated two gaming plans to fund higher education. Neither went anywhere.

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.