Bills proposing a minimum amount of physical activity for elementary school students and making it slightly easier for charter schools to use district buildings advanced in the Colorado legislature Wednesday.
Those two bills featured skirmishing over the eternal issue of local control of schools, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue.
Later action came in two House committees, where a plan to revamp the board of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association was passed and a bill trying to nudge schools towards greater energy efficiency was killed.
Also Wednesday, two Democratic Joint Budget Committee members introduced Senate Bill 11-184, which would create a 60-day tax amnesty next summer during which people who owe back state taxes could pay them without incurring penalties and at half the normal interest rate.
Revenue from the amnesty, estimated at about $15 million, would go to the State Education Fund. Legislative Democrats, hoping to blunt Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in 2011-12 school spending, are looking for spare change anywhere they can find it, and the measure is the first bill on the issue.
The sponsors are Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, both of Denver, along with a lengthy list of Democratic cosponsors in both houses.
- Mandatory physical activity in elementary schools – House Bill 11-1069 was passed 6-2 by the Senate Education Committee.
- Charter school access to vacant district buildings – House Bill 11-1055 won preliminary House floor approval on a voice vote.
- Membership changes for the PERA board – House Bill 11-1248 was passed 7-6 by the House Finance Committee.
- Energy-efficient schools – House Bill 11-1204 was postponed indefinitely on a 5-3 party-line vote by the House State Affairs Committee.
Some of the yes votes were lukewarm, but the Senate Education Committee Wednesday voted 6-2 for House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require at least 10 hours a month of physical activity for elementary school students.
Representatives of the Colorado Health Foundation, the Colorado Public Health Association and the Colorado Children’s Campaign all testified in favor of the bill, citing statistics about the growing problem of childhood obesity and the health benefits of physical activity.
But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, urged committee members to vote against the bill. “CASB’s opposition and the opposition of our members have nothing to do with the research” about youth obesity,” Urschel said. “There’s no question that we are in the middle of an epidemic of fatness.”
“We do not believe it is the state’s role to tell districts how to use their time.”
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said, “I’m a little surprised you’re still opposing it,” given that the House stripped out lengthy requirements for data districts would have had to report to the state.
Urschel said, “We do worry about how it will go in future years,” raising the fear that future legislatures will add to mandates established by the bill.
“I don’t understand what the big burden is,” said Hudak, noting that the bill includes a very broad definition of physical activity, including students walking around while on field trips. “In fact, it is way too weak,” Hudak said.
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said to Urschel, “I don’t know what you’re afraid of. … It’s not a mandate in the sense that you’re thinking about it.”
Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, agreed the bill is “so watered down” but said the issue should be left to local school boards.
Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, commented, “I don’t think it’s going to make one bit of difference if the bill passes or not in terms of children getting exercise.” Local school officials are “going to roll their eyes and say, ‘Here comes something else. Can’t the state leave us alone?’”
Renfroe and Spence were the only no votes on the bill. All committee Democrats plus Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, voted for it. Heath and King indicated they were lukewarm supporters.
Freshman Rep. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver and a doctor, is Senate prime sponsor of the bill.
After the hour of discussion, chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, jokingly asked Aguilar, “Senator, do you want to come back to Education?”
“Never again,” Aguilar joked.
While Democrats were voting against local control and Republicans were supporting it in Senate Education, the roles were reversed on the floor of the House.
As originally introduced by freshman Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, HB 11-1055 would have allowed charter schools to request use of vacant district buildings and land and, if refused, appeal to the Department of Education. If the department ruled the building was suitable for a school, the charter would get it rent-free. There was a similar provision giving Charter School Institute schools access to vacant state land and buildings.
The bill is a legislative priority for the Colorado League of Charter Schools but has raised concerns among other groups. The House Education Committee amended the bill to take vacant land out of the measure and require charters to pay CDE for the costs of building evaluations.
On the floor Wednesday, Beezley said his measure “is a simple, humble bill. … Essentially it lets a public school occupy a public school building. … I would urge we not let those assets go to waste.”
Beezley then proceeded to slenderize the bill further with successful amendments that took state buildings out of the measure entirely, created an additional appeal process to the State Board of Education by either a charter or district and established an exemption for districts that have long-term facilities plans that include charter schools.
House Democrats said that last amendment was so significant that the bill ought to go back to House Ed for a more deliberate review than could be provided on the floor. That transfer attempt failed after lengthy debate.
Some Democrats’ comments had a districts vs. charters tone, and at one point House Ed Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, went to the microphone to say, “What we keep losing sight of is that charter schools are public schools.”
As with the physical activity bill, the measure’s potential impact would appear to be limited. A legislative staff analysis estimates there are 20 vacant buildings in six districts around the state, with an average of 10 new charters opening a year.
The House Finance Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday evening to send House Bill 11-1248 to the floor, but comments by two Republicans who voted yes indicate sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, still has some convincing to do.
The bill would change the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association board to six outside members appointed by the governor, seven association members and the state treasurer.
The current board has three gubernatorial appointees, the treasurer and 11 elected association members.
Kerr, a critic of last year’s PERA reform legislation who has doubts about the association’s plan to achieve solvency in 30 years, believes taxpayers deserve a greater voice on the board.
New Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton testified for the bill, saying, “This is not a critique of PERA’s current board. What it is about is ensuring diversity.”
A handful of PERA retirees and board chair Carole Wright opposed the bill, saying they fear the change would politicize the board.
That seemed to strike a chord with Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “The question is which composition of the board is best to resist political pressures. I’m not sure appointees are the best ones to do that.”
Board members are trustees with the fiduciary responsibility to oversee pension fund investments. Contribution rates and benefits can be changed only by the legislature. Some past legislative decisions have had nasty consequences in economic downturns.
Swalm voted yes but specified that was “only for now.” Freshman Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, also voted yes and also said “only for now.”
The committee spent nearly three hours on the bill Wednesday evening – on top of 4 ½ hours spent earlier on other bills.
Rep. Andy Kerr, R-Lakewood, didn’t get very far with his 2010 proposal that new schools be built to Energy Star standards.
His milder 2011 plan, House Bill 11-1204, met the same fate Wednesday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which killed it 5-3. This year’s bill would have required schools built or significantly renovated after Jan. 1, 2012, meet federal Energy Star standards, be designed in consultation with the Governor’s Energy Office or have a design team that includes at least one person skilled in energy efficiency.
Kerr got a polite and lengthy hearing from the committee, but various Republican members weren’t impressed with the idea, saying many school districts and architects are already designing energy efficient buildings and so there’s no need for a state mandate.
Lobbyist Jason Hopfer testified against the bill on behalf of the Douglas County School District.
Lawmakers Wednesday acted on several other education bills, many of them minor or technical. Bills of interest included:
- House Bill 11-1169 on sharing of threat information by campus police – House 47-18 final approval
- Senate Bill 11-029 on streamlining of reports by the State Land Board (the manager of state school lands) – Passed 13-0 by House Education Committee.
House Bill 11-1048, the proposal to allow families to take tax credits for private school tuition or the costs of home schooling, was again laid over in the House Finance Committee.
Sponsor Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, told Education News Colorado the bill will be heard Thursday. In a bid to get the bill out of committee, Swalm said he will offer an amendment requiring students to spend a year in public school before becoming eligible for the credit and another amendment that would slightly reduce the tax credit and give districts $500 for each student they lose because of the program.
Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information