WESTERN SAN JUANS – Representatives from a so-called “gang of 20” Colorado school districts including Ouray, Ridgway, Norwood and Telluride traveled en masse to Denver Tuesday to testify about how a new plan for funding Colorado’s schools would hurt their districts.
By Wednesday afternoon, they were cautiously optimistic that their efforts to force through key amendments to the proposed new education finance legislation known as Senate Bill 213 had been successful.
The amendments, including a provision to maintain the current rate of state funding for districts which otherwise faced hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars of annual cuts that would have had to be backfilled with local tax hikes, came on the heels of an exhausting day of testimony before the Senate Education Committee.
Telluride School Board President Cheryl Miller described a scenario with large school districts from the Front Range monopolizing control of the floor for hours upon hours, while those who had traveled from more distant corners of the state were forced to wait until late at night to tell lawmakers how devastating the proposed Senate Bill 213 would be for their districts.
One of the most dramatic moments of the day came when the committee chair, Sen. Evie Hudak, attempted to close the session without giving the 17 remaining rural superintendents in the room a chance to speak.
Ridgway Superintendent Cheryl Gomez would have none of it, Miller said, and insisted that she and her colleagues had the right to make their voices heard.
“The look on the chair person’s face was priceless,” Miller said. “People were high-fiving Cheryl for standing up like that.”
SB 213 is the brainchild of Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat from Denver. The plan proposes to take the state’s dysfunctional 20-year-old public education funding formula and update it so that poor, at-risk districts have enough money to cover their needs, while directing more money across the board to cover programming for special education, at-risk students, English language learners and full-day kindergarten.
But in doing so, the original bill created a “Robin Hood scenario” that hit school districts with higher property valuations hardest, if they didn’t raise local taxes by the year 2020.
After a five-year “hold harmless period,” Johnston’s bill as originally written called for those districts to dramatically increase local taxes to maintain full per-pupil funding. The Norwood School District, for example, would have had to raise its taxes by a full 18 mills to maintain current funding levels.
Ultimately, the legislation hinges on voter approval of statewide tax increases of over $1 billion a year.
Johnston and cosponsors of SB213, including Rollie Heath of Boulder, have described the bill as uniformly benefitting school districts across Colorado. But the numbers tell a different tale for certain districts.
“For our district in Telluride, we were going to be losing money,” Miller said. “Everyone kept saying no-one will get left behind with this new plan, and that just wasn’t true.”
Under the proposed legislation, as originally written, Telluride School District would have lost almost $1 million a year; Norwood would have lost $886,000; Ridgway would have lost $425,000 and Ouray would have lost $277,000 annually if they did not succeed in raising local property taxes by 2020. Durango School District 9-R and schools in Rifle would have had the most to lose – facing annual shortfalls of more than $12 million.
These and other mostly rural mountain districts, which jokingly referred to themselves as “the biggest losers,” gathered together as a coalition late last week after learning that Johnston’s bill was headed for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.
As a result of Tuesday’s deliberations, the bill has since been amended to protect the “biggest losers” from the funding cuts with a “hold harmless in perpetuity” provision that promises the state will continue to backfill funds which districts would otherwise lose under the new formula.
“Sen. Johnston is really trying hard to fix the issues, but the devil is in the details,” Williams said.
Some of those details were hashed out during a mad rush of breakfast meetings on Wednesday morning, with the amended bill set for a vote in the Senate Education Committee sometime Wednesday afternoon (after press time).
As the dust settles from this week’s hearing, Miller emphasized, “This is really just the beginning. After the Senate hearings, it will go to the Senate floor, then to the House and the process will start all over again. Then, the two different bills will have to go to reconciliation. So there is still a long way to go.”
Ultimately, regardless of what the final legislation looks like, it will be up to the voters of Colorado whether they want to feed the beast that has been created with a billion-dollar statewide tax hike.
If the whole thing sounds like a civics lesson, it has been just that for Miller and her rural colleagues. “It’s the first time I’ve been this involved,” she said. “I always knew the process was complex and hip-deep with special interests, but to see that maybe we could make a difference was fascinating to me.”