D51 hopes to close gap with tax override

School District 51 is the perfect size to get less money.

That’s according to the Colorado funding formula for school districts, which reasons that schools with fewer than 5,814 full-time-equivalent students (preschool and kindergarten students count as part-time) and more than 21,940 full-time-equivalent students need more money to operate than the handful of school districts with populations in-between those sizes. Fourteen districts fit in the middle as of 2009–10.

District 51 fits in that in-between category. That’s part of the reason why it will receive $6,137.37 per student this year in combined state and local funding, nearly $400 less than the state average for per-student revenue.

The district also will spend less. School District 51 was in the bottom 15 percent of Colorado school districts for per student spending in 2009–10, the most recent year that expenditure data was available for all school districts in the state.

The district ranked 154th among 178 school districts that year for spending $9,587 per student, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That’s 25 percent less money spent per student than the state average that year.

The national average for per student spending the same year was $10,586, but that amount factors in only how much money schools spent using money received from a state funding formula.

Using that definition, Colorado spent $8,178 per student two years ago, while District 51 spent $7,225 per student.

This year, School District 51 will spend $6,953 per student, using money provided through the state funding formula, which combines state and local tax money.

With initial projections showing state funding probably will be cut in 2012–13, the fourth straight year for cuts, District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita is skeptical the district will change the state funding formula in the district’s favor next year.

She does not envision much changing with federal funding, which comes in the form of mineral lease revenue, special education, free and reduced lunch compensation, and grants that require specific actions.

“We can’t pursue every grant because if they’re not aligned with your strategies, they can take you off course,” DeVita said.

DeVita and District 51 Budget Director Vi Crawford believe the best way to overcome the revenue and expenditure gap is to raise the only taxes Colorado school districts can effect with voter approval: property taxes.

All but two of the other districts in the medium-sized category collect extra revenue through voter-approved mill levy overrides such as the one District 51 voters will consider Nov. 1.

All but one of those overrides are for larger mill amounts than District 51 currently has for 3.842 mills. Those mills were tied to 1996 and 2004 bond issues and were approved to operate new schools in District 51.

“We’ve never done an override by itself,” Crawford said. “We stayed out of the override business for a really long time while other districts had them, and so they always had more money. We stayed out of that business until we absolutely had to.”

At least one of the two medium-sized school districts without override mills, Pueblo City 60, is considering following District 51’s lead.

The Pueblo district may propose an override and a bond issue as early as fall 2012, according to District 60 Public Relations Director Greg Sinn.

Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs, which has a slightly larger enrollment than District 51, has more than 15 override mills and was able to implement safety measures, keep class sizes stable and avoid layoffs after passing a 2008 override that generates $9.2 million a year, according to Academy 20 spokeswoman Nanette Anderson.

“It has cushioned the millions in cuts every district has absorbed,” although not entirely, Anderson said.

The district froze salaries for a third consecutive year in 2011–12 because of state budget cuts, she said.

An override isn’t always enough to weather state funding cuts, even for the district with the most override mills in Colorado, Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton. The district has more than 20 override mills.

But even the $30 million a year raised by override measures approved in 2000, 2004 and 2008 in the district haven’t been enough to stave off state funding cuts, according to Adams 12 Communications Director Joe Ferdani.

The district cut $22 million in 2010–11 and another $25 million this year. Cuts included the elimination of the equivalent of 164 full-time positions this year and 188 positions last year.

The district also cut competitive middle school athletics and instituted a bus transportation fee.

“There’s been such a strain from the state that (the overrides) helped a couple years, but when we got further years out, it’s been more challenging,” Ferdani said.


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