School funding bill off to rocky start after complaints of “ambush”
Measure holds negative factor constant
Everybody likes the fact that the proposed 2016-17 school finance bill doesn’t increase the K-12 funding shortfall, but the measure’s rushed introduction Monday ruffled a lot of feathers.
The measure would allocate $6.4 billion for basic school operations in 2016-17, up from $6.2 billion this school year. The bill would hold the K-12 funding shortfall, often called the negative factor, at $831 million, the same level as this year. See the chart at the bottom of this article for the impact on individual districts.
The bill is seen as modest good news for school districts, who’ve faced tight funding since 2009, when declines in state revenues forced substantial cuts. The state constitution requires base K-12 funding – about 75 percent of total support – to increase every year by inflation and enrollment. The bill does that.
Holding the shortfall to $831 million is considered a victory because projections made before the session convened put that figure as high as $905 million.
The bill would set average per-pupil funding at $7,424, up from this year’s $7,312.
The bill’s rushed introduction left members of the House Education Committee scrambling to understand it when they convened only about 90 minutes after House Bill 16-1442 was formally introduced.
“To rush this most important bill through the process” was unfair to members and to the state’s school districts, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.
Sen. Owen Hill, whose Senate Education Committee will hear the bill later, was more blunt. “I was shocked. … This ambush was unacceptable,” arguing that House members were ambushed because they faced with voting on a bill they didn’t had time to review.
Wilson and a couple of other GOP members harped on the issue throughout the 80-minute hearing, to the irritation of chair Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.
Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner said the measure came up when it did because it needs to move in tandem with the main state budget bill, also introduced Monday. The budget and companion measures, including school finance, were finished over the weekend, so Monday was the first opportunity to introduce them. The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee.
She said the school measure is “a bill we should all be cheering about.”
Her cosponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, also tried to downplay the complaints. “I don’t think there are many major issues we can’t deal with despite the short notice.” He noted that the JBC had to trim other parts of the budget like transportation and Medicaid in order to set school funding at the proposed levels.
Democrats control the House, so a few irritated Republicans aren’t likely to change the bill much. The GOP-majority Senate may be more troublesome for the bill.
Hill said rushed House consideration of the bill short-changed public review and testimony. He indicated Senate Education will take a longer look at the bill and likely will consider amendments to expand parent choice. Hill was mad enough about the situation that he sent out an email blast criticizing what the House did.
The House panel spent a lot of time on two secondary elements of the bill.
The first of those would change current state law that sets minimum funding for very small districts at 50 students, even if they have a smaller number of actual students. The bill proposes a system under which the floor would be 30 students for the very smallest districts.
The change could be a big blow to the 19-student Agate district on the eastern plains. Hamner proposed an amendment that would delay the cut for Agate by a year, but the committee voted that down.
Another section of the bill would modestly increase funding for a handful of districts that have between 4,000 and 5,000 students. Some of the affected districts are in Hamner and Rankin’s House districts. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said that “benefits the sponsors, which we’ll discuss on the floor.”
The committee passed the finance bill 9-2. It goes Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee, along with the main budget, House Bill 16-1405. That hearing should be a formality, but finance bill debate on the floor later this week could be lively.
Learn more about the bill in this analysis by legislative staff.
Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Photo credit: Millie Hamner