A measure introduced in the Senate Thursday would increase the options that could be used for schools that need turnaround plans and also would require greater public scrutiny of such plans.

If passed, the bill would be the first significant modification of the state’s new accountability system for schools, passed by the legislature in 2009 and now being implemented by the Department of Education.

The measure is sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.

The accountability law, known as Senate Bill 09-163, requires that schools placed on “turnaround” status for low academic performance hire an outside partner to help improve the school, reorganize school leadership, become an innovation school or cluster with other schools to form an innovation zone, or “restart” by hiring contract management, becoming a charter school or redoing the charter if the school already has charter status.

It also allows for “other actions of comparable or greater significance or effect,” without spelling out what those might be.

Hudak’s bill would expand those choices to include a “Promise Neighborhoods” model (similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone) and an option that would involve a school developing a group of innovative strategies such as those detailed in “Profiles of Success,” a 2008 report done by several foundations.

Image of school grades B, C and D.The bill also would require public hearings on proposed turnaround plans before districts submit plans to the state and also specifies that summaries of such hearings be given to the state.

Another recently introduced measure, House Bill 11-1126, also would require greater public input on proposed school turnaround and improvement plans. That bill is sponsored by freshman Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. Hudak said Thursday she will carry the bill in the Senate.

Discussing SB 11-080, Hudak said, “I am coming at this from a poverty point of view. … We have to look at poverty strategies [such as Promise Neighborhoods] to turn around struggling schools.”

She also said she believes community involvement and buy-in is vital to improving low-performing schools, hence those requirements in the bill.

A department official said CDE has no position on the bill yet, but the measure is expected to be discussed Friday afternoon when the State Board of Education holds its first legislative update meeting of the 2011 session.

The bill has seven Democratic cosponsors in the Senate, including Senate Education Chair Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. It has only one Democratic cosponsor in the Republican-controlled House and no GOP cosponsors yet in either chamber.

Under the SB 09-163 rating system, turnaround is the lowest rating, which has been assigned to 4 percent, or 83, Colorado schools. Both turnaround schools and priority improvement schools – the next lowest category – have five years to improve before the state steps in.

The state currently is reviewing the first set of school improvement and turnaround plans, all of which will be posted online later this year.

Education News Colorado stories on the accountability system and school turnarounds:

Action on proposed PERA swap delayed

Committee action was delayed Thursday on Senate Bill 11-076, a measure that would continue for one more year a pension-contributions swap that has the state contributing less and workers contributing more to employee pensions.

Members of the Joint Budget Committee are proposing the bill as a way to help close the revenue gap in the 2011-12 budget. The swap was put into effect for the current 2010-11 year to save the state money.

If passed, employees, including many in the higher education system, would continue paying 10.5 percent of salary rather than 8 percent into the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The contribution by the state, and state colleges and universities, would remain at 7.65 percent rather than returning to 10.15 percent.

According to a legislative staff analysis, the total savings would be $65.5 million, including $28.5 million in higher education and $37 million for the rest of state government. Because pension contributions are made before taxes are taken, the smaller employee paychecks would reduce state income tax collections by $1.9 million.

Colorado WINS, an employees’ group, and PERA oppose the bill. The pension system doesn’t like it because it could reduce the size of the state division fund. That’s because employees who leave the system are allowed to withdraw their contributions, plus a match and interest. But employer contributions remain in the fund even if an employee leaves. The estimated negative impact of the bill would be $6.6 million.

The committee spent about half an hour taking testimony and bemoaning the necessity of the swap before chair Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, took the bill off the table.

Johnston told EdNews later that he wants the committee to have more time to discuss the bill, time that wasn’t available Thursday because the panel had another item to deal with before the full Senate convened (see next item).

Legislative staff analysis of SB 11-076

Budget debate takes a new turn

Senate Finance did unanimously pass House Joint Resolution 11-1007, the controversial measure that suggests a state spending target for 2011-12.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Johnston said he had been “tempted” to kill the measure and introduce a new version of the resolution, which was the focus of a sharp partisan spat on the House floor Tuesday.

But, he said, he decided not to do that and to keep the resolution alive to see if the two parties can have “a productive conversation” about next year’s budget.

The annual resolution sets an estimate of state general fund revenues for the coming year. But that target isn’t binding on the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the annual state budget bill and which usually pays more attention to updated state revenue forecasts made by state economists in late March.

Majority Republicans in the House want to set the target 2.75 percent lower than the number suggested by legislative economists, saying that’s a prudent way to avoid midyear budget cuts later. Democrats fear a lower target could drive budget cuts that turn out to be deeper than needed.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, laid out his rationale for the lower estimate when speaking with reporters Monday (read what McNulty said).

Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, asked McNulty to specify what specific cuts in state programs he wants (read news release and Morse letter).

Johnston repeated Morse’s tone Thursday, saying, “That’s a conversation worth having. There just needs to be a real conversation and real numbers. We’ll see if we can get a productive conversation out of it.”

The budget debate, which won’t be finally resolved until April, has important implications for both K-12 and higher education. Both areas expect cuts for 2011-12; school districts and colleges would just like to know how much so they can make their financial plans for next school year.

Senate Ed delays vote on prescription bill

The Senate Education Committee Thursday spent about two hours taking testimony and debating before deciding to delay action on Senate Bill 11-012, a proposal intended to make it easier for children to get permission to carry emergency medical devices like asthma inhalers at school and administer medication to themselves.

Sponsor Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said the bill was inspired by the red tape he had to go through to obtain such permission for his 8-year-old son, David, an asthmatic.

Current state law allows students to “self-administer” but is too cumbersome and lacks common sense, Brophy told the committee.

Witnesses representing several groups, including school nurses, and some committee members opposed or questioned the bill in its original form, although Brophy had an amendment prepared that covers many of the issues raised.

Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, suggested creation of a two-tier system under which school districts could choose to follow existing state law or the more streamlined system proposed by Brophy. Bacon noted several times that there’s wide variation among Colorado school districts and that local control and conditions should be honored.

In the end, Bacon, noting that everyone seemed to want to reach a compromise, delayed action on the bill until a comprehensive set of amendments could be drafted.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information