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Glitch in Colorado Finance Law Troubles Districts

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A little-noticed provision in Colorado's new school-finance law is causing a big headache for some school districts, according to local school officials.

The new formula for distributing some $935 million in state school aid was passed by lawmakers this year to address spending disparities among poor and more affluent districts. A novel feature of the law categorizes the state's 176 districts into such groupings as "urban-suburban," "small attendance," or "recreational" and provides them with differing amounts of aid.

One major shortcoming of the new law, many educators agree, is a provision that allows districts to seek property-tax increases only once every two years, during general elections.

"That is quite a significant restriction," said Lauren Kingsbury, legal counsel of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

In Littleton, a Denver suburb, the provision has forced school officials to place a $2.9-million tax-increase request on the Nov. 8 ballot, a year earlier than they otherwise would have sought it.

The district projects a $2.5-million budget shortfall for fiscal 1990, with the deficit expected to increase to $5 million in fiscal 1991. School officials are asking for as much in new taxes as is allowed under the finance law to try to head off the shortfall, but they fear that voters might not appreciate their foresight.

"We're trying to build ahead," said Lyn Chambers, a spokesman for the district. "If we wait until 1990" for the next general election, "we will have lost a lot of ground."

According to Kirk Mlinek, a researcher for the state office of legislative counsel, five other districts8have made similar decisions.

The School Finance Commission, a board created under the law to monitor the new formula, plans to discuss the need for an off-year election provision at its Oct. 31 meeting, Mr. Mlinek said. The panel is composed of the governor, the commissioner of education, legislators, and other education leaders.

Although there has been discussion that legislators may amend the law next year to allow more frequent elections, "we can't rest on that guarantee," Ms. Chambers said.

Precinct Mismatch

Another problem for school boards is that because general-election voting precincts do not always match school-election voting boundaries, many county clerks are refusing to include the school-tax measures on the general-election ballot. That means many voters in Littleel10lton will have to go to one precinct to vote in the general election and to another to vote on the school tax, Ms. Chambers said.

"This is another glitch in the law," she said. "We're basically having to conduct our own election."

Meanwhile, some districts are upset with the way they have been categorized under the law.

In Durango, for example, school- board members tried unsuccessfully to convince the state that their district belonged in the recreational category, along with such ski resorts as Aspen and Vail. The state's decision, they say, will cost the district $800,000 to $1.2 million a year in aid.

Durango and other districts have appealed their classifications, but Mr. Mlinek said the finance commission is unlikely to grant any changes.

"They believe there may be some districts that do need to be reassigned, but they want to let the law work for now," he said.

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