Donation for breakfasts not a done deal

BARBARA COTTER Updated: February 2, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: February 2, 2011

An offer from a coalition of Colorado Springs-area ministries to fund a state school breakfast program short-term is still on the table, but Department of Education officials are waiting to see if the Legislature will come through with the money before accepting the $124,229 one-time donation.

It’s not that state education officials don’t appreciate the offer, said Department of Education spokesman Mark Stevens. It’s a matter of the wording in the initial offer from the Community Roundtable, a group of parachurch organizations that includes Focus on the Family and the Navigators.

“Their e-mail said, ‘if the funding doesn’t come through,’ and it sounds like the Legislature is going to come through,” Stevens said Wednesday.

Even if state officials were to accept the offer, they couldn’t just turn around and spend the money.

“We do have the authority to accept donations or gifts or whatever, but we would still need legislative authority to spend it, because that’s the process that we would have to go through,” said Jane Brand, head of the Department of Education’s nutrition unit. “The Legislature would still have to approve the expenditure.”

Saying it was acting on the precept that Christians should help with needs in their communities, the Community Roundtable made the offer after the Colorado Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee recently voted not to fund the Smart Start breakfast program for the last few weeks of the school year. But committee members who voted against the funding said they were not necessarily opposed to the expenditure. Instead, they said, the issue did not come through proper channels in the form of a request from the governor’s office.

The governor’s office is expected to make the request soon, Stevens said, and committee members have said they’ll likely reconsider funding the program.

Should the Legislature fail to OK the funding, there’s nothing in the law to prevent the Department of Education from accepting the Community Roundtable’s donation.

Although the offer comes from a Christian-based group, there are no constitutional issues to resolve, according to Colorado Springs attorney Martin Nussbaum, an expert on church-state issues.

“First, does the fact that the ministries are offering to pay for kids’ breakfast prohibit the free exercise of religion? It’s not an issue,” he said. “And secondly, this would have no aspect of constituting an establishment of religion. It’s simply a charitable gift from the ministries to the state.”

Nussbaum said it’s not unusual for faith-based groups to come to the rescue of public programs. Exhibit A, he said, would be Woodmen Valley Chapel’s adoption of the West Side Community Center. The difference in the Community Roundtable’s offer is that it involves cash instead of the provision of services or goods.

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