Who Is In Charge

Final school funding debate fails to materialize

The question of $5 million hung over final resolution of the legislature’s school funding package Tuesday, but in the end the question faded away.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, wanted the $5 million added to House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 School Finance Act, to slightly increase state support for kindergarten students. (Kindergarten students are funded at 58 percent of the per-pupil rate for students in grades 1-12.)

Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee, added $10 million for kindergarten when HB 14-1298 came through his committee. But he lost that Monday in a conference committee, which also rejected his suggestion for $5 million. (Get details in this story.)

Kerr was shopping for support Tuesday to add the $5 million on the Senate floor, but he didn’t find enough.

After the conference report came to the floor vote late in the afternoon, the Senate accepted the report without change and re-passed the bill 23-12.

Kerr referred to the issue only obliquely during brief remarks, saying, “Vote your conscience on the conference committee report. … In the conference committee some of our programs took a haircut, and some were completely lopped off.” Kerr voted against the report but for the bill.

The House knocked off for the day before considering the conference report but is expected to approve it and re-pass the bill Wednesday, the last day of the 2014 session.

Senate moves on last education bills

The Senate on Tuesday morning cleared its calendar of the remaining education bills that needed final votes.

Two of those weren’t amended in the Senate so go right to Gov. John Hickenlooper for consideration:

Academic gaps – House Bill 14-1376 is intended to shed light on tracking of minority students into less-rigorous classes and would require the Department of Education to create a “course level participation performance report” that breaks out student enrollment in core courses (English, math, science and social science) by student demographic groups, correlated where possible with the proficiency levels of students in each core course level as measured on statewide assessments. The bill also would require school districts to use that data as the basis for proposed actions in their school and district improvement plans. Cost: $144,216. Passed 19-16.

Trophies for academic growth – House Bill 14-1385 would set up a system of annual awards – with trophies – for high schools with the highest academic growth in each prep football conference. “This bill attempts to incentivize student to excel in academics just as they do in athletics,” sponsor Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, said during preliminary debate Monday. “Trophies are for sports,” groused Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa. Passed 27-8.

Four other bills also are on their way to the governor after the House Tuesday agreed to Senate amendments. They include:

Higher education funding – House Bill 14-1319 would create a new funding formula for the state’s higher education system that gives greater weight to enrollment and would base a modest amount of funding on institutional performance measures such as graduation and student retention. A pet project of lame-duck House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the bill gives substantial flexibility to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to hash out the details, setting up a long summer and fall of haggling among higher education interests. The formula won’t go into effect until 2015-16. Being speaker is powerful: The bill passed the Senate 33-2 and the House 59-5.

Gifted and talented – In a session of “haircuts,” House Bill 14-1102 took several trims. It originally proposed increasing G&T funding by nearly $6 million and requiring districts to screen all students and provide certified G&T program supervisors. The bill’s price tag has been reduced to a $1.6 million grant program, and most of its mandates have been softened to encouragements. Passed 21-14, re-passed 40-25 by the House.

Advanced Placement incentives – The House voted 56-9 to re-pass House Bill 14-1118, which would budget $261,561 to provide incentives for rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes. Passing the bill is a victory for a House Republican, Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a retired rural superintendent known for his Western-cut suits and aw-shucks manner.

Traffic safety – House Bill 14-1301 allocates $700,000 to the Safe Routes to School program, which provides information for students and parents about safe walking and biking to school, as well as grants for driveway and sidewalk improvements and similar work. The House re-passed it 47-18.

Still pending on the last day

A handful of other education bills still require House review of Senate amendments, although there isn’t expected to be disagreement between the two chambers. Those measures are:

Scholarships – House Bill 14-1384 proposes a new college scholarship program that would take more than $33 million in so-far unused proceeds from the state’s 2010 sale of its student loan portfolio and devote it to a new program that would both provide financial aid to students and give funding to state and private organizations that offer college counseling services. The idea is modeled on the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Actual scholarships wouldn’t be awarded until 2016, after the program has been set up and additional funding has been raised. During Monday debate Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, complained that the program wouldn’t give out money immediately. But sponsor Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, said delay was necessary because “We’re talking about building a long-term investment so it’s sustainable.” Passed Senate 24-11.

School closures – Anticipating possible changes for schools on the accountability clock, House Bill 14-1381 sets public communication, timetable, student reassignment and other requirements districts must follow when schools are to be closed for low academic performance. Passed Senate 18-17.

Online schools – House Bill 14-1382 contains a new definition of online education and new requirements for transfer of student records between schools, but mostly it sets up a task force to study how multi-district online schools should be overseen. Largely the product of an initial task force, the bill originally proposed having the Department of Education set standards for districts that authorize multi-district programs. (CDE now certifies the programs.) There were lots of objections to that plan – and complaints that the original task force wasn’t inclusive, so the bill ended up proposing another study. Passed Senate 28-7.

And the House Tuesday gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 14-214, a bill that could have future implications for the 130,000-some teachers who are covered by the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The bill proposes three studies of PERA, possibly setting up pension legislation in the 2016 legislative session. The measure needs Senate approval of a minor House amendment.

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.