Former Summit County educator faces steep challenges in Legislature
Ryan Summerlin January 2, 2013
A $1 billion shortfall in K-12 funding, a pending courtroom showdown over public school finance and a controversial proposal to reduce in-state college tuition for Colorado’s undocumented students – yes, Summit County’s former school superintendent and current state representative has her work cut out for her.
As the newly appointed chairwoman of the House Education Committee, Millie Hamner (D-Dillon) will face unprecedented challenges when the 69th Colorado General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9 in Denver.
Like last year, lawmakers must once again balance a budget while grappling with the sharp fall in K-12 funding that has led to teacher layoffs and program cuts for some of the state’s 178 public school districts.
Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, the House majority leader from Gunbarrell, visited Summit County along with Hamner on Wednesday as part of a multi-day tour of Colorado’s High Country. Hullinghorst said that while tax revenue will be up this year, the increase won’t be enough to put a dent in the $1 billion shortfall in school funding.
That’s where voters will have to step in, said Hamner.
“Colorado is the only state in the nation that does not let the Legislature increase taxes,” she said. “As the chair of the education committee, I don’t have the authority to take a tax increase idea to the Legislature for a vote. That would have to go to the people.”
In November, voters rejected a $3 billion tax increase to fund schools. Hamner believes that another ballot initiative might succeed.
“What I hear from constituents is that parents are feeling more of the burden,” she said. “Parents are doing more out-of- pocket spending on education.”
Colorado public schools receive state funds as mandated by the Public School Finance Act of 1994. Last year, the act pulled in more than $5.3 billion in funding from states taxes, vehicle registration taxes and local property taxes, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
In December, however, a Denver judge ruled that the state’s school funding system doesn’t pass constitutional muster. District Judge Shelia Rappaport called the system “unconscionable,” The Denver Post reported. The judge called for increased funding.
“There is not enough money in the system to permit school districts across the state to properly implement standards-based education and to meet the requirements of state law and regulation,” she wrote in her ruling, according to The Post. “This is true for districts of every description. … There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded. This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system.”
The attorney general’s office has argued that lawmakers and voters should decide how much to spend on education. The office is appealing the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Hamner was named to lead the education committee she served on during her first two years in office after Democrats won back control of the state House in November.
The education committee monitors issues involving K-12 public schools – such as educational accountability and school finance – as well as higher education, from administration and governance to tuition and financial aid.
Aside from new leadership responsibilities, Hamner is also coming into the House with new constituents. Because of redistricting, she now represents District 61, which includes Summit, Lake, Pitkin, Gunnison and Delta counties. Previously, she represented District 56, which encompassed Summit, Eagle and Lake counties.
Since she was appointed to represent Summit County and District 56 in 2010, Hamner has sponsored and passed multiple bills intended to streamline and enhance public education, including last year’s bill targeting early childhood literacy.
Hamner has also advocated for the controversial asset bill, legislation proposing undocumented students who graduate from Colorado high schools be granted nearly in-state tuition rates at state colleges. Versions of the bill have died on party-line votes, but with Democrats in control of both chambers, Hamner was optimistic this week that it might succeed in the 2013 legislative session.
In 1978, Hamner started her career in public education as a teacher in the Eagle County School District, where she taught for 23 years. In 2001, she was recruited to the Summit School District, where she started as assistant superintendent. She was promoted to superintendent three years later and remained in the role for another six years until she was appointed to the state Legislature in 2010.
Hamner won her first election this year, keeping her seat out of the hands of four challengers including Democrat-turned-independent Kathleen Curry, a four-term veteran of the state House.
Caddie Nath contributed to this report.