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Colorado Lawmaker Accused Of Trying To 'Hijack' His Own School Finance Bill

Ann Marie Awad

With mere days left in Colorado’s legislative session, lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee took up what started out as a rather slim school finance act, the bill that sets funding levels for all of the state’s 178 school districts each year. Because next year’s budget hasn’t been pinned down, part of the bill’s debate hinged on the uncertainty of funds. But the bill still left the committee, weighed down with an unexpected amendment -- one that would require school districts to share funds from voter-approved property tax hikes and bond issues with their charter schools.

When asking voters for money, districts must tell voters what specific programs that money will fund. For example, if Adams 12 Five Star District wants to raise money for full-day kindergarten, they would only mete out money to schools that would provide that program -- like elementary schools. That’s why districts have the power to withhold funds from certain schools.

Districts across the state take different approaches on whether or not to distribute any funds to charter schools -- publicly funded but privately run schools. Some districts share, some don’t. Earlier in the session, Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, proposed a bill that would force districts to share those taxpayer-authorized funds with their charter schools. While It passed the full Senate on March 14, it has yet to be introduced to the House.

Hill also introduced the School Finance Act in April.

On April 27, the Senate Education Committee gathered to discuss. More than one lawmaker expressed surprise that a mere two people had signed up to testify, given that the school finance bill is usually one of the more drawn out, contentious policy debates of the session.

“I’m baffled,” remarked Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.

“Ditto,” replied Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada.

At the meeting, Hill proposed an amendment nearly verbatim of his charter funding bill. Democratic Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, called the move a “hijack.”

“I don’t know how you can hijack your own bill,” replied Republican Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton.

Hill’s amendment passed along party lines, with the education committee’s Republican majority winning the day.

Before the bill heads to the Senate floor, the Senate Appropriations Committee debates it. Given the fact that so many other elements of the budget are uncertain, there may be more changes to come. Under the current bill, public schools will face further cuts.

Despite a 2.8 percent increase in overall funding to account for inflation, the bill increases the “negative factor.” That’s a budgeting tool that the legislature has used since 2009 to fund schools below the amounts required by law. Last year, it shaved about $830 million from public school coffers. The current legislation may increase that shortfall to a projected $877.4 million.

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