The proposed constitutional change seeks to increase state income tax rates by an average of $133 per family per year. If it passes, the amendment will pay for implementation of a new Public School Finance Act, SB213, a labyrinthine piece of legislation passed last spring and signed into law by Gov. Hickenlooper that seeks to overhaul how education is funded and money delivered to Colorado’s public schools.
The act offers across-the-board benefits to all Colorado school districts, from funding for all-day kindergarten, preschool and special education to the implementation of new teacher- effectiveness legislation. It creates what critics call a “Robin Hood” scenario, because districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students will gain the most from the new plan.
Across Ouray, Montrose and San Miguel counties, each school district has a different story to tell about how Amendment 66 will affect its bottom line. Yet surprisingly, the biggest supporters of the amendment aren’t necessarily the ones who would see the most substantial benefits to their own district’s coffers.
‘NOT JUST ABOUT KIDS IN OUR AREA’
Ridgway School District Superintendent Cheryl Gomez said her district will see a boost of about $63,000 if Amendment 66 passes. More than the extra money, Gomez is excited about the prospect of a fully funded all-day kindergarten, which the district now offers, but subsidizes, since under the state’s existing funding formula, kindergarten students are only funded at half of the rate of full-time students.
Another benefit: the $150,000 increase in Special Education funding from the state going directly to the Uncompahgre Board of Cooperative Services (which provides a variety of support services to five school districts in Ouray and San Miguel Counties as well as the West End), thus offsetting the contribution the Ridgway School District would otherwise pay into the UnBOCS. But, Gomez acknowledged, Ridgway taxpayers would almost certainly pay more money in income tax into the state system than the district will get back under the new formula, if Amendment 66 passes.
“Does it pan out really great for Ridgway? Not really,” Gomez said, adding she’s taking the long view. “I am hopeful that we will continue to work out additional snags, and everyone will benefit statewide. This is about Colorado’s kids, not just kids in our area.”
Telluride School Board President Cheryl Miller also supports the proposed amendment, pointing out that the money it brings in through income taxes would essentially replace money stripped from education funding at the state level over the past several years. “At this point, there is really no other reasonable or accepted source of income for public schools,” she said.
Miller said the amendment’s main goals make sense – bringing in a new source of money for public education; allocating more of that money to districts with the highest needs; and rebalancing the state-to-local ratio, so that wealthy local districts shoulder more of the burden for supporting their own schools.
As a downside, under SB213, Telluride and a handful of other districts (including Ouray) would be disproportionately impacted by the fact that the new bill gets rid of a “cost of living factor” in the current school funding formula. For Telluride, this means the loss of an additional $600,000 in state funding, replenishable only by going for a mil levy override.
But ultimately, once the math is done, the Telluride School District still comes out $160,000 ahead (roughly $400 per student) if Amendment 66 passes, thanks to increased funding for full-day kindergarten and dollars flowing into the UnBOCS for Special Education and Gifted and Talented programing, plus such add-ons as the Teacher Leadership Initiative helping to fund new state-imposed teacher evaluation systems and reporting requirements.
“In general, it’s bittersweet for me,” Miller said. “I know it puts us in this awkward position, but we are a wealthy district. I have been hearing from school board members from all over the state, and for the districts that will benefit the most, this bill will make a huge impact. It helps our communities, and better prepares our kids. It’s kind of like Obamacare. Hopefully, if implemented correctly, we will see less costs down the road.”
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Montrose School District, meanwhile, stands to benefit more substantially than its neighboring smaller districts, if Amendment 66 passes. “The latest information puts us at $3.2 million we would gain back,” said Montrose County School District Superintendent Mark MacHale. Although that sounds significant, MacHale said, “It’s not a lot in comparison to other districts. We have lost over $7 million through cuts from the Colorado Department of Education. Most districts are getting back what they lost, and we are not. It is disappointing.” Under SB213 and Amendment 66, he said, “There are winners and there are losers, and there are small winners and big winners. We are a very small winner.”
Most people in the Montrose community feel that the matter of school finance is better handled at the local level, he said, and “there was a distinct possibility we were going to go to our local voters with a tax initiative this fall.” But with Amendment 66 on the ballot, “We had to put that on hold. The last thing we want to do is compete with a state initiative.”
The Montrose County School Board hasn’t taken a formal stance on the proposed amendment, but over the past week, several Montrose organizations have passed resolutions against it, including the Government Affairs Council and the Montrose Chamber of Commerce.
“No one is saying there is not a funding problem,” MacHale said. “But they all believe it’s best handled at the local level. They worry about sending money to Denver. No one can tell us how much we are sending, and it is restrictive on what we spend it on. Sometimes we need a little leeway in making those decisions.”
The Ouray School District, too, has concerns about local impacts of Amendment 66. It is one of the few districts in the state that would actually lose funds under SB213’s new distribution formula, even though Ouray residents would pay significantly more money into the system through the income tax hike. Superintendent Scott Pankow estimates that the district would experience a net loss of $14,000 in revenues if Amendment 66 passes. That’s not all that has him worried. The proposed legislation is so complex, with so many moving targets built into it, he said, that “the unknown pieces of this make you pause.
“What public schools need is some certainty around finance, not just formulas,” Pankow said.