Who Is In Charge

Tight budget bill now law

Gov. John Hickenlooper Friday signed Senate Bill 11-209, the $7 billion 2011-12 state budget bill that got started with Gov. Bill Ritter submitting a plan to the Joint Budget Committee last November.

Hickenlooper issued a modified proposal in February, followed by weeks of wrangling as legislative leaders tried to figure out how to handle the budget in a General Assembly with split partisan control.

For education, the net result of the eventual budget compromise is a $227.5 million cut in K-12 total program funding for next year, down from the $332 million originally proposed by Hickenlooper. Some school districts may share an additional $67.5 million next January, but only if the 2010-11 budget year ends with a larger surplus than previously forecast. (Get more details in this story.)

The state’s higher education system is taking a cut of about $125 million in state funding, which now is only about a quarter of college and university revenue. Higher ed now relies primarily on student tuition and fees. The University of Colorado recently set its rates for next year (see story), and other boards of trustees will follow suit his month and next.

Hickenlooper Friday signed several other budget-package bills, including Senate Bill 11-218, which sweeps money from several small and inactive special funds in the Department of Education into the State Education Fund.

And, the House gave preliminary approval Friday to Senate Bill 11-076, yet another budget-related measure. That bill will produce savings by continuing a plan under which the state and universities reduce their contributions to employee pensions, with that loss offset by higher deductions from workers’ paychecks.

That bill, and a resolution allowing the transfer of some tobacco lawsuit settlement money, has to pass in order for the overall 2011-12 budget to be balanced, as required by the state constitution. If that pair isn’t approved (it’s expected the two bills will be), Hickenlooper said he’ll have to restrict spending elsewhere in the budget, including $20 million in school funding for next year.

The governor also vetoed eight footnotes in the budget bill, including three that put specific requirements on three areas of Department of Education spending. Hickenlooper said he was instructing the department to follow the intent of the three footnotes but that the legislature violated the constitutional separation of powers by being too specific in how money could be spent. (Read the governor’s letter for details on the footnote vetoes.)

Elsewhere at the statehouse

Colorado lawmakers did manage to evacuate the Capitol by late afternoon Friday, leaving a pile of work for the last three days of the 2011 session next week.

Although other issues are sparking the high-profile debates as the sessions nears its end, several bills relating to education moved on the floor and in committee on Friday.

On the floor

The House gave final approval to these education bills:

  • Senate Bill 11-111 – Authorizing study of student transitions and remediation, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-133 – Approving a study of school discipline measures, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-204 – Updating the role and mission of Colorado State University-Pueblo and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-265 – Mesa State name change to Colorado Mesa University, 60-3

All but SB 11-111, which was amended in the House, go to Hickenlooper for signature.

The House also rejected Senate amendments to House Bill 11-1254, the bullying bill, sending it to conference committee and adding a small note of suspense to the session’s final days.

The Senate voted 34-0 to pass Senate Bill 11-266, which requires background checks for employees of contractors who work for schools. Criminal background checks, of course, already are required for teachers, other licensed professionals and other employees of schools.

In committee

The clock may be ticking on the 2011 legislation session, but that didn’t stop panel members from giving the full Senate Education Committee treatment – multiple amendments, lengthy questioning and nitpicking of details – to House Bill 11-1301 Friday afternoon.

Sponsor Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, looked increasingly exasperated as the hearing dragged on.

The measure, pushed primarily by CU, would give colleges and universities increased flexibility on a variety of financial and administrative matters, including student fees, employee benefits, hiring, construction and others.

A sensitive part of the bill is the proposal to free colleges from the requirement to buy office furniture from the state’s prison industries. Some lawmakers fear that would cripple the industries program. The House added some protections, and Senate Ed approved an amendment that would delay for a year lifting of that requirement.

The committee also passed an amendment requiring a college to give 12 months’ notice to the Department of Personnel and Administration if it wants to opt out of state health insurance for classified employees and offer its own plan. That’s intended to give the state time to figure out if withdrawal of college employees would hurt the state plan financially. The governor would be the ultimate arbiter of disputes.

The House Education Committee voted 12-0 to pass Senate Bill 11-245, which updates state law on Department of Higher Education oversight of some teacher preparation programs, and 11-1 to pass Senate Bill 11-240, which would put the private occupational schools board under the state’s sunset law.

At the request of sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, the House State Affairs Committee killed House Bill 11-1248, which would have reduced worker and retiree membership on the Public Employee’s Retirement Association Board and added gubernatorial appointees.

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.