The legislative Joint Budget Committee Wednesday unanimously approved introduction of a bill that would give the legislature greater control over part of the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.

The program was the subject of a somewhat critical state audit last year (see story), and that has prompted some proposed legislative tinkering.

The proposed JBC bill would affect the cash grants that BEST gives school districts for smaller projects like boiler replacements, new roofs and the like. Last year the Capital Construction Assistance board awarded $15.7 million in cash grants to 24 projects, including $9 million in state money and $6.6 million in local district matching funds.

The BEST program receives a share of mineral and leasing revenues generated by state-owned lands. Under current law, the program basically can spend whatever amount it wants from those revenues, a system called “continuous appropriation” in legislative lingo.

The bill approved by the JBC would remove that continuous appropriation power, allowing lawmakers to set a specific amount for cash grants in the annual state budget bill.

Meeting at the same time just a block away, construction board members discussed the bill and had some concerns.

“I’m a little uncomfortable” with the idea, said board chair Lyndon Burnett, saying he was concerned about possible legislative tinkering if the cash-grants amount was in the annual budget bill.

Jennifer Mello, lobbyist for the Department of Education, cautioned the board, “Don’t react to something until you see it on paper. … Working off rumors is just dangerous.”

The board spent more time on another issue raised by the audit, whether the state should do a fresh inventory of school building conditions statewide. The audit faulted the program for not being able to rank buildings by health and safety deficiencies, based on an inventory done five years ago.

Program staff told the board that doing a full new inventory would cost $10.9 million, while upgrading the five-year-old building assessment would cost $2.7 million.

Board members seemed more interested in another option, hiring state inspectors (at an estimated $100,000 a year apiece) and spending $100,000 to train those employees to inspect buildings. That plan also would involve integrating building-conditions data that’s maintained by larger districts into the state database.

The board asked BEST staff to prepare more information on that option and present it at the Feb. 26 meeting. (Get more information here on the options discussed by the board.)

First ELL bill introduced

The first in what may be a series of competing bills on English language learners was introduced Wednesday. House Bill 14-1167, sponsored by Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo, would expand programs for English language learners, including creation of a five-year period during which students would be eligible for extra funding. (Current state funding is limited to two years.) The introduced version of the bill doesn’t include a price tag nor a funding source.

Last year Navarro teamed with Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, on a similar bill, which died because the sponsors couldn’t find funding.

There’s talk that Buckner may introduce his own bill this year, and that Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, might include such funding in a larger bill that would proposed to resurrect some features of his Senate Bill 13-213. (Read HB 14-1167 here.)

Going through the motions

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday killed Senate Bill 14-033, this year’s version of the perennial Republican proposal to grant tax credits for private school tuition, donations for private school scholarships and for home schooling costs.

Witnesses provided predictable testimony (parents testified for the bill, representatives of the Colorado Education Association and the ACLU opposed it), Democratic and Republican committee members made predictable statements and the three Democrats outvoted the two Republicans to kill the measure. State Affairs is where the majority leadership sends bills that it wants killed. (Get more details on what the bill would have done in this legislative staff analysis.)