Legislators seek $750 million or
 more for schools

Lawmakers are poised to introduce a major revamp of the way the state funds public schools, promising to address a major criticism: inequity to some districts over others.

To do so, however, would require a ballot question and an increase in taxes.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said the state’s School Finance Act was last reformed in 1994, a time when there were no cellphones, email or even a World Wide Web.

Since then, inequities have crept into the funding formula, which dictates how much money each school district receives, leaving some receiving more than others.

To fix it not only requires major changes to the formula that dictates how much each school receives, but also how much money the state dedicates to K–12 education.

“We’re going to build a 21st century formula, and then we’re going to go to the voters to get the resources to fund it,” Johnston said in a telephone press conference. “We’ve built one of country’s strongest (education) reform states. We think we’ve got one of the best cars you can drive out there, but we think when you do that you’ve got to rebuild the engine and put gas in it.”

At the time the current school funding formula was written, the state paid about 30 percent of all school funding, while local property taxes made up the rest.

That’s now reversed, in part, because some districts lowered their property tax rates and forced the state to make up the difference, the senator said.

Johnston wants to reverse that, and bring the ratio more to a stable 60 percent state, 40 percent local.

To fully achieve that would require a ballot question in November to raise new revenue to fund education, asking the voters for anywhere from $750 million a year to $1.1 billion.

The question would be placed before voters in November. If it doesn’t pass, the funding formula changes won’t go into effect, said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-District 61, the House sponsor of the measure. Hamner’s district includes eastern Delta County.

“That’s where the districts have felt the greatest impacts, is in the factors,” Hamner said. “This provides us the opportunity to really look at the factors and the weighted system of support, and it gives us a chance to look at what a reasonable local share ought to be. If this passes, though, all districts will see an increase in their state funding.”

The 140-page measure Johnston expects to introduce within the next two weeks focuses on the overall funding policy to fix what’s wrong with the current formula, such things as the number of at-risk students a district has and overall student population.

He does that, in part, by doing away with the cost-of-living factor and placing a cap on what is considered a small district.

“The cost-of-living adjustment took what was already a regressive state tax system, which is linked to property taxes, and made it worse by putting in place a multiplier that gave all of our districts that had a higher cost of living more and more of a subsidy,” Johnston said. “That was often places like Denver or Boulder or Aspen or Telluride or Steamboat. Those are places that are expensive to live, but those are not places that are the hardest to attract and retain teachers and students.”


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