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Colorado Votes Temporary School-Finance Plan

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Colorado lawmakers, after debating for several months a number of bills that would have substantially changed the school-finance system, have instead approved temporary measures to alleviate funding inequities.

A bill sent last week to Gov. Richard D. Lamm would create a $1-million equalization fund for property-poor districts and modify the per-pupil aid formula to lessen the budgetary effects of enrollment declines.

"After both House and Senate education committees junked a series of school-finance measures, the legislative leadership appointed a committee of three legislators from each body to negotiate changes in the public-school finance act," said Al Meiklejohn, chairman of the Senate education committee and a member of the new finance panel.

Increase in Expenditures

The finance committee devised a bill, HB 1430, that raises the maximum per-pupil spending increase for districts from 5.5 percent to 5.65 percent above the mandated per-pupil expenditure of the previous year. This will raise average per-pupil expenditures by $159.60 for calendar year 1985, Mr. Meiklejohn said.

The bill authorizes districts that spend less than the state average per student to increase their spending next year by $170 per student and provides $54 million for the equalization effort. The measure would raise minimum spending per pupil to $2,450, exclusive of students in categorical programs, Mr. Meiklejohn said.

Lawmakers also gave the state board of education authority to rule on appeals for additional increases in spending.

Go to the Voters

If its appeal is turned down, a district could still go to the voters for an additional levy, according to Patricia J. Burger, governmental-relations specialist for the Colorado Department of Education.

The legislature appropriated funds--some $1 million--for "problem" districts that need more money than the $170 increase, Mr. Meiklejohn said.

"There was a movement this year to make really drastic changes in the equalization law," but they were not included in the finance committee's compromise, Ms. Burger said.

One bill, for example, would have earmarked state sales-tax revenues for support of K-12 districts. (See Education Week, March 14, 1984.) Currently, the state sales tax goes into the general fund and then is distributed to all state programs.

The matter of completely overhauling the school-finance system will probably be considered next year or in the near future, Ms. Burger said.

Cap on Equalization

According to Mr. Meiklejohn, "there was real concern in the General Assembly about the way equalization spending is increasing."

The state appropriated $200 million for the equalization program in 1972; this year, funding was set at $720 million.

To stop the cost escalation, the leg-islature voted to place a cap on equalization appropriations for fiscal 1985-86 and thereafter.

Under the plan, equalization funds may not increase by more than either 7 percent of the state appropriation in 1984-85 or the percentage that state revenues increase, whichever is less. Currently, state revenues are up 10.2 percent, Mr. Meiklejohn said.

Declining Enrollments

Declining enrollments have posed a substantial problem in the state, according to the state official. "Even with the increasing population, the number of kids in grades K-12 is declining," he said.

In the past, the state funding formula helped districts adjust for declining enrollments, allowing them to use the average of the past three years or the highest count of the immediately preceding two years when determining funding levels, according to Mr. Meiklejohn.

Under the new formula, the enrollment averaging will cover a five-year period--excluding 1981, in which attendance-counting procedures were changed--or the highest enrollment of the past two years, Mr. Meiklejohn said.

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