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Amendment to school finance act leads to squabble

GOP forces debate over charter schools

DENVER – The annual decision on how much state funding school districts will get for each pupil is eagerly awaited as they prepare their budgets.

But this year, an amendment to the School Finance Act has added a complication to the distribution formula.

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee passed Senate Bill 296, which would establish the per-pupil funding for K-12 at $6,546.20. The vote was 4-3, with Democrats opposing.

The Democrats voted against the measure because of an amendment that would require districts to equally distribute funds to traditional schools and charter schools in their jurisdiction.

SB 296 is known as the School Finance Act and is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation that comes before the General Assembly every year.

The amendment is the exact copy of a bill passed by the Senate earlier this session, SB 61, that has languished in the House without a committee assignment.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and sponsor of SB 61, said he amended the School Finance Act to ensure the conversation about how charter schools are funded was taken up in the House.

The Senate GOP wants to address what it sees as an inequity in the current funding formula that leaves some children behind based on their parents wanting to explore an alternative educational path, Hill said.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and a former educator who voted against SB 296, said amending SB 61 into the school finance bill is highly manipulative.

“We’re playing games with a bill that is about funding for education based on one person’s agenda,” Todd said. “That to me is offensive.”

In addition to Todd, Sens. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, and Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Spring, also voted against SB 296, which has become essentially an updated version of SB 61, Todd said. “That’s what I’m going to call it because that’s what this bill has become.”

What the School Finance Act should be about is quantifying how much each district receives and then leaving it to them to determine how the money should be used to best serve the children in the community, Todd said.

“There is a time and a place to have discussion about how do we finance charter schools – that is dealt with at the local level,” she said.

The SB 61 amendment is likely to be stripped from the finance act once it reaches the House and could lead to a lively back-and-forth between the two chambers as they finalize school funding for 2018.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, and a member of the Joint Budget Committee, said regardless of what the two sides think of the amendment adopted by the education committee they must come together because they are required by the state constitution to fund public schools.

“It has to happen. If it doesn’t happen during the regular session, I would fully expect the governor to, at some point before the fiscal year is over, call a special session to complete the job,” Lundberg said.

He added that in his 15 years in the Legislature, the School Finance Act has never failed to pass.

If that did happen, the Department of Education does not have the authority to determine the amount of funding each school is entitled to and would be unable to fund Colorado’s 178 school districts, causing them to shut down or to tap into reserve funds.

The dispute represents another chapter in the saga of partisanship that has bogged down the Legislature as the session comes to a close, leaving needed legislation, such as measures to fix Colorado’s crumbling roads and avoid cuts to hospitals, sidelined by a breakdown in negotiations, largely along party lines.

The School Finance Act heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

lperkins@durangoherald.com



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