Surprises happen during the closing days of a legislative session, and one popped up on the Senate floor Wednesday when a Republican senator unsuccessfully attempted to save a soon-to-expire State Board of Education rule.

Colorado CapitolThe controversial regulation requires prompt notification of parents when school employees are arrested.

In other action, the Senate Education Committee gutted a late-starting bill affecting the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which runs the Building Excellent Schools Today program. And major bills on statewide testing and school discipline advanced.

Parent notice gambit dies on party-line vote

The latest episode in the long-running melodrama over the State Board of Education’s April 2011 parent notice rule came in the Senate with a proposed amendment involving House Bill 12-1086, this year’s version of the annual omnibus rules review bill. (Regulations issued by state agencies automatically expire in May, unless they are made permanent by the bill.)

The Legislative Legal Services Committee last December failed to approve the parent notification rule on a tie vote, thereby marking it for expiration. (See this story for details on that meeting and on the long saga of the rule.)

SBE Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, has been pushing the rule for two years. Earlier this session Republicans in the House Education Committee attempted to give the board power to issue the rule in an amendment to a routine cleanup of education laws (see story). But that change was stripped by another House panel.

Wednesday, Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, attempted to amend the rules review bill to include ratification of the parent notice rule.

“This rule is within the State Board of Education’s general overview of instruction,” Brophy argued. “I think we should correct the decision of the Legislative Legal Services Committee.”

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, pushed back, saying, “We spent a lot of time going through this and decided not to do this. Respect the process.” Morse was chairing legal services last December when the SBE’s rule died.

Brophy’s amendment got the votes of the Senate’s 15 Republicans but failed because all 20 Democrats voted no.

Incidentally, the rules review bill also contains legislative ratification of the recent SBE regulations for appeals by teachers who receive two consecutive ineffective or partially effective evaluations. (Get background on that issue in this story.)

Key sections excised from BEST bill

Sen. Gail Schwartz’ Senate Bill 12-179 emerged from the Senate Education Committee Wednesday considerably shorter than it was when the hearing started.

The measure, introduced less than a week ago, was seen as an attempt by the Snowmass Democrat to shore up the reputation of the Building Excellent Schools Today program in the wake of a long-running Denver Post series about school construction problems linked to the Neenan Co. of Fort Collins. Some schools financed by BEST were among those with engineering problems.

There were two key parts of SB 12-179. The first would have had the effect of shifting engineering review of many school building plans from the state Division of Fire Safety to local building departments. Schwartz was mildly critical of the division during the hearing, saying, “There is really a problem we have with plan reviews” by the state.

Another part of the bill would have set strict conflict-of-interest rules for the nine-member BEST board, rules that skeptics felt would have made it impossible to fill seats that require school engineering, architectural and construction experience.

“You couldn’t get enough people to serve,” said Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. “I think banning them from the board entirely is problematic,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. The board has formal conflict-of-interest rules that bar members from discussing or voting on projects in which their employer may have an interest.)

The 2008 BEST law sets detailed education and construction requirements for members of the construction board, which is filled through a complicated set of appointments by the governor, the State Board of Education and legislative leaders. The Schwartz bill did not attempt to change any of those original board requirements.

Schwartz sat tight-lipped through the Senate Ed hearing, saying at one point that she thanked “the committee for your thoughtfulness.”

On King’s motion the committee removed the two sections on a unanimous vote and then passed the slenderized bill on a 6-1 vote.

The bill has caused a fair amount of behind-the-scenes heartburn for education lobbyists and BEST supporters, who felt it was unnecessary and problematic.

Intrigue over BEST may not be over, and sources expect another bill proposing to change or cap the program’s revenue still will be introduced, even though the 2012 session has only five working days left.

Broad support for multistate testing bill

The Senate Wednesday gave final 31-4 approval to Senate Bill 12-172, which would require the State Board of Education to commit to one of two groups that are developing multistate achievement tests in language arts and math. Such tests would be based on the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by the state board.

Sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, argues that the multistate tests will be higher quality and perhaps cheaper than Colorado-only tests, which is what some members of the state board want. (See this story for background.)

The House Education Committee is expected to take up the testing bill on Monday afternoon, meaning the measure – if it gets that far – might not get a final House floor vote until Wednesday, the last day of the 2012 session.

Discipline bill gets easy committee OK

House Education Wednesday gave 13-0 approval to Senate Bill 12-046, the school discipline reform bill that would roll back most zero-tolerance policies. Supporters of the bill believe that such policies have led to excessive use of expulsions, out-of-school suspensions and referrals to police, in turn leading to high school dropout rates.

Get more background on the bill here, and you can listen to archived audio of the committee meeting here.

Other bills on the move

Stipend bill gets a haircut: Senate Education passed House Bill 12-1261, the bill that proposed to give stipends to nationally board certified teachers and additional money to such teachers who work in high-needs schools.

But, on the motion of chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, the bill was amended to provide $2,000 annual stipends only to teachers at high-needs schools, not to all such teachers.

Name change trifecta: The Senate gave 32-3 final approval to House Bill 12-1331, the measure to change Western State College to Western State Colorado University. That brings to three the number of colleges elevated to university status this session. Metro State and Adams State name changes were approved earlier. Mesa State was upgraded to Colorado Mesa University last year, so Fort Lewis in Durango is now the only four-year state school with college in its name. Officials there have no plans for a name change.

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