Nobody knows yet who’ll be in control of the 2015 Colorado legislature, but two key Democratic lawmakers are already reaching out to school superintendents, inviting them to work together on school finance issues.
The letter sent to district leaders Tuesday can be seen as a gesture to avoid some of the acrimony and bruising lobbying that marked the school finance debate during the 2014 session. (See the full letter at the bottom of this story.)
“We are asking you to work together with the legislature for both short and long term strategies to fund education,” wrote Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon and Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood. They are the chairs of the House and Senate education committees.
“It is imperative that we work together,” the letter said.
“I don’t know that we expected it, but we saw it as an opportunity,” said Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger, who’s been a leader in the superintendents’ funding push. As it happened, the influential Denver Area Superintendents’ Council met Thursday, and the letter was discussed.
“We took it as a hopeful sign that they are both sincere and interested,” Messinger said.
A Western Slope superintendent, Jason Glass of Eagle County, agreed, saying, “I think superintendents appreciate this proactive effort … to work with Colorado’s school leaders.”
Hamner and Kerr both are up for re-election in the Nov. 4 election. Hamner faces an opponent she’s beaten before and is considered likely to return to the Capitol. Kerr is in a close, contentious and high-spending race. Republicans are pushing hard to win a Senate majority, so even if Kerr wins, he’ll lose his chairmanship if the GOP takes control.
School boards and district superintendents aggressively took the initiative during the 2014 session, pushing very hard to reduce the “negative factor,” the $1 billion shortfall in K-12 spending caused by the legislature’s narrow interpretation of school funding requirements.
Some lawmakers were caught off-balance by the lobbying push, and both Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino initially opposed any cut.
Hamner and Kerr at times were caught in the middle of the fight, which finally ended with a $110 million cut in the negative factor as well as funding of some education initiatives that Hickenlooper wanted. Hamner mentioned more than once last spring how stressful the experience was. (Refresh your memory about the battle with this Chalkbeat Colorado story from last March, and get the details of how it all turned out in this article.)
In an email response to questions about this week’s letter, Hamner praised the superintendents’ involvement last winter but said she wants to do things differently next year.
“While I fully support their decision to get more involved and to fight for funding, I believe the process can and should work better if we work together,” she wrote.
The Hamner-Kerr letter said, “With the goal of making this collaboration as effective as possible, we will be inviting you to a series of meetings we plan on hosting to discuss these matters further.”
Hamner told Chalkbeat, “I’m not certain at this time how this collaborative approach will look, but I believe that a representative group of superintendents and CFOs [chief financial officers] who are willing to work with us in studying the opportunities and challenges within our state budget could play an important role in shaping improvements to school funding in this next session.”
Unknows loom over finance issue
There are some key uncertainties that could affect 2015 school finance debates and attempts to further trim the negative factor.
The most immediate is the election. Defeat of Hickenlooper by GOP candidate Bob Beauprez and Republican takeover of one or both legislative houses could dramatically change the playing field. (Most observers expect Democrats to retain House control, however.)
A new financial factor – the possibility that state will have to pay tax refunds under the terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – could make it harder for lawmakers to increase school funding significantly. (Get details in this story.)
And a recent lawsuit, filed by a group of parents and districts, challenges the constitutionality of the negative factor and is pending in Denver District Court (details on that here).
“We understand there’s a lot in play right now,” Messigner said, adding that school finance remains the top priority for superintendents.