Statehouse roundup

District liability bill gets initial House approval

Desiree Davis (center) testifies at the Capitol while husband Michael (left) listens.

The bill named after a student who died in a school shooting and that would change the liability of school districts for such tragedies won initial floor approval in the Colorado House late Thursday night.

And even later in the evening, the House also gave preliminary approval to a complicated proposal that would allow the state to sell bonds to help shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

A few hours earlier, a House committee passed a just-introduced measure that promises some relief for K-12 and higher education funding in the future. But the measure faces some big hurdles in the 2015 session’s closing days.

“Claire Davis Act” moves quickly

Senate Bill 15-213, named in honor of Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis, who was killed in a December 2013 shooting, received preliminary House floor approval after an emotional debate.

Several House Republicans raised questions about the bill. Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, proposed an amendment that would have set a higher liability standard for districts than the bill proposes. That failed on a 26-38 vote.

“I am more fearful of this bill than I am of PARCC or Common Core,” said Willett, a lawyer.

But a speech by Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, drew the most attention. Wilson, a retired rural superintendent, said, “You can’t legislate safety folks, you just can’t do it.” His voice choking up, Wilson said, “Weigh your vote carefully.”

Just hours earlier the bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-3 vote. The centerpiece of that hearing was testimony from Claire’s parents, Michael and Desiree Davis.

“If this bill becomes law, school districts will have a new responsibility. They will be responsible for protecting kids from foreseeable harm,” Michael Davis said. “A vote in favor sends a clear message to public education entities that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

“I am here on behalf of my daughter, Claire,” said Desiree Davis. “These bills are not for us, they are for the next family.” (A companion measure would create a study committee on school violence and youth mental health.)

The main elements of the bill would allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.

School districts have been nervous about the bill since it was introduced but have had to be careful in lobbying, given that the bill is sponsored by bipartisan leaders in both houses.

But amendments along the way have softened the measure noticeably. A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability. (See this story for more details on the bill.)

“Those amendments have made it a better bill,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a prime sponsor.

A related measure, House Bill 15-1273, got final House floor approval on 64-0 vote Thursday morning and heads to the Senate. The bill is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools, a system that was criticized in the wake of Claire Davis’ death. Among other things, the bill would require marijuana-related incidents and sexual assaults to be reported separately. They’re now lumped into other categories. (Get more details in this legislative staff summary.)

Fast-track pension bill moving ahead

The other big education-related issue debated during the House’s late-night session was House Bill 15-1388, a complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

Proceeds from bond sales would be deposited in PERA’s state and schools trust funds, both beefing them up and giving the pension system more money to invest.

The bill received preliminary approval after 11 p.m. following a relatively short debate.

The bill was introduced only late Tuesday and approved by the House Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The plan has the backing of the Hickenlooper administration, GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the PERA board and most school districts. It also has bipartisan sponsorship but may face hurdles because of its complexity, the possible risks of such a plan and because it surfaced so late in the session.

If the plan works, supporters estimate the bill would bring PERA to solvency five years sooner than currently projected and would save $4.5 billion.

Heavyweight interests push for change in hospital fee

The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee spent a long afternoon listening to witnesses urging approval of House Bill 15-1389, another just-introduced measure that could provide future benefits for both K-12 and higher education.

The committee passed the bill 7-6 after hearing from a long parade of supporting witnesses representing K-12 and higher education, state agencies, major hospitals, think tanks and business groups. Committee Republicans, some of whom didn’t seem to fully grasp the bill, all voted no.

The bill involves a six-year-old state program called the hospital provider fee, which imposes a charge on hospitals. That revenue provides money the state uses to gain federal Medicaid matching funds, money that couldn’t be tapped without the fee.

Even though the charge is a fee, not a tax, the revenues count against the state’s spending limit under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Tax and fee revenue has risen fast enough that the state will need to pay TABOR refunds to taxpayers this year and, likely, a couple of years into the future.

That has squeezed the amount of additional money available for K-12 and other programs. The bill, sponsored by Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would reclassify provider fee revenues so that they wouldn’t count toward the TABOR limit. The fee program would become what’s called an “enterprise,” which isn’t subject to TABOR. For example, the state’s higher education system is classified as an enterprise, so tuition revenue isn’t counted against the limit.

There’s been chatter for months about reclassifying the provider fee, and Gov. John Hickenlooper belatedly proposed the change a couple of weeks ago.

The bill would “allow us to more fully fund the state’s top spending priorities in the coming years,” Hullinghorst said.

If the bill passes it won’t affect funding of any state programs in 2015-16, nor would it affect TABOR refunds to taxpayers in 2016. But it could free up more than $200 million in revenue for spending in 2016-17, and there wouldn’t be taxpayer refunds in 2017.

Without the bill, “There are going to be some big losers in the budget next year,” Hullinghorst warned, including transportation funding, higher education and likely K-12 as well.

The bill has some things working against it, including its lateness, its complexity and the fact that any perceived tinkering with TABOR makes Republicans nervous. The measure currently has no GOP sponsors in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

But working in its favor is the phalanx of education, highway, health care and business lobbyists who’ve combined forces to push the bill.

Get more information about HB 15-1389 in this legislative staff summary.

House avoids school finance fight

The House Thursday, during its morning floor session, backed away from a confrontation with the Senate over the 2015-16 school-funding bill by stripping a controversial amendment from the measure.

The amendment, added on the House floor Thursday, would have resurrected a two-year legislative study of the school finance system. The Senate earlier killed a separate bill that contained the proposal.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed backing off Wednesday’s amendment.

While saying she supports the study, “We also have to be the adults in the room. The school finance bill passing in the Senate is really important.” Leaving the amendment in the bill “really does put the bill at risk.”

The House voted to strip the amendment and then passed Senate Bill 15-267 on a 45-19 vote. The measure returns to the Senate for consideration of non-controversial amendments added in the House earlier.

For the record

Help for rural districts – The Senate Education Committee, after about 90 minutes of wandering testimony and discussion, voted 6-3 to pass House Bill 15-1201. This measure would create a grant program for boards of cooperative educational services to help small school districts consolidate administrative services. The bill was introduced with a $10 million price tag, but it emerged from Senate Ed with only $2 million. And now the measure has to be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.