Published Online: April 12, 2010

Rich Colo. School Districts Could See Cuts

Some Colorado public school districts face teacher layoffs and school closures next year, anticipating a 6.4 percent cut in state education funding. The situation isn't as dire for a handful of property-rich school districts, but lawmakers may force them anyway to make comparable cuts in the name of fairness.

Colorado's public schools are paid for by state funds and local property taxes. For the fiscal year that starts July 1, total school funding is to drop from $5.6 billion this year to $5.45 billion — even though — formulas used to calculate the annual increases required by Amendment 23 would normally set next year's figure at $5.8 billion.

While tax revenues are expected to increase next year, lawmakers need to cover $1.3 billion in total state spending over two years as federal stimulus money and other sources of one-time money dry up. Education funding is in play because it accounts for about 40 percent of the state's $18 billion budget.

Under a strict reading of the law, basic per-pupil funding next year is set to rise by 0.4 percent since inflation is negative this year, providing three-quarters of total public schools funding. But the remainder will be reduced by $365 million.

To spread the pain, officials proposed calculating 6.4 percent of the total amount Colorado's 178 school districts are set to receive — state plus local money — and then reduce their state aid by that amount.

For seven districts, however, there isn't enough state aid to take that 6.4 percent from. Those districts — Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit — rely more on local property taxes than the state, mainly because their property values are higher and because local voters authorized higher taxes for schools.

The House voted to reduce whatever state aid those districts got and temporarily limit the amount of property taxes they could raise and spend on schools. Together those districts would be forced to spend $3.1 million less than they can now. The Senate thought it was unfair to deny those districts local tax dollars but did vote to cut their limited state aid.

One proposed compromise would have required the seven districts to spend $1.9 million of local tax dollars to cover expenses normally picked up for the state, such as transportation, and let them keep the other $1.2 million. The $1.9 million the state keeps would be distributed to all districts — including the rich ones — for transportation. Only two districts would take the full 6.4 percent hit under that plan — Estes Park and Gunnison.

It failed when Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, first introduced it in the Senate. Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, called it the "Robin Hood amendment."

Steadman argued all districts should share the burden because the state constitution requires a "thorough and uniform" system of schools.

He also wants Coloradans to realize the severity of the state's budget situation and how Amendment 23 and the conflicting Taxpayers Bill of Rights complicate it. If it wasn't for TABOR, he said, lawmakers could try to raise taxes.

"To the extent that this a cry for help, I want everyone to hear it," Steadman insisted.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said forcing healthy school districts to make cuts doesn't make sense. School funding already has a measure of inequality, he said — but that's not a reason to keep financially healthy districts from spending what they have.

"Those districts are going to do good things in education with that money," said Bacon, a former teacher.

Democratic Rep. Christine Scanlan's Summit County school district, where she has a child in high school, stands to lose up to $1.4 million in local tax revenue under the House version.

She has been conflicted over whether the district should share the pain, but school district leaders aren't. They support some kind of shared sacrifice and also want to make a point about what they see as the overall inadequacy of Colorado school funding.

Assistant superintendent Karen Strakbein said increases required under Amendment 23 are minimal and that Colorado has fallen behind other states.

"This is a statewide issue for K-12 that needs to be rectified and resolved," Strakbein said.

Park County schools superintendent Chuck Soper bristles at talk of rich versus poor districts. Park is technically property-rich but can't afford any of the extras like more populated Denver-area districts can.

"We're not King John as far as the Robin Hood story goes. We're part of the masses," he said.

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