WESTERN SLOPE – Efforts to place Initiative 22 on the upcoming November ballot and its $1 billion push to flush the state's school finance system with new cash and raise state income taxes have district officials on the Western Slope scrambling to determine just how the new legislation – the first major attempt to overhaul the state’s school finance rules in two decades – will impact local districts.
Monday supporters delivered more than 160,000 signatures, twice what was needed, to the Colorado Secretary of State's office to put Initiative 22, a funding component of Senate Bill 213, on the fall ballot. SB213, passed through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives by a 37-28 party-line vote on April 29, will affect all of Colorado's 178 school districts.
A signature verification is expected to take a month, and the bill’s language remains "complicated," say both Montrose County School District RE-1J Superintendent Mark MacHale and Telluride School Board Cheryl Miller, who serves as the board's state legislature liaison.
Montrose RE-1J schools have made budget cuts, slashing more than $7 million in recent years. Last winter, and well into spring, MacHale and members of the volunteer-based Community School Improvement Team worked hard to bolster local support for new revenue sources for addressing the district's most critical problems.
Initiative 22 would also create a new formula to determine state and local funding shares, taking into account differences in median income, property values, free and reduced lunch programs and the number of at-risk students within districts. Money for special education would also be channeled into districts who mainly pay for those programs.
MacHale estimates Montrose RE-1J will receive about $4.2 million if the measure passes in November. The money would go to fund full-day kindergarten and half-day preschool, as well as at-risk students and English-language learners.
MacHale said the district and CSIT are pushing for new revenue generation through a sales tax or mil levy, but said those plans are now on hold, awaiting the outcome of Initiative 22.
"No one can convince me that our schools are properly funded," MacHale said, adding that he would prefer that tax money generated locally remain in the district, and not be lumped into one large state fund.
Initiative 22 would change the state's current income tax rate of 4.63 percent into a two-tiered system with all taxpayers paying 5 percent on the first $75,000 of income, and 5.9 percent on income beyond $75,000.
All new revenue would be placed in a new state Education Achievement Fund, earmarked only for preschool and K-12 students.
State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat who was the bill’s largest legislative backer, said the legislation would make "Colorado the number-one state in the country" in school reform. He said the measure would be transparent and accountable to taxpayers, who would be told exactly how the public money is being invested.
Republican State Senator Ellen Roberts of District 6, who serves Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties, voiced fears that the dollars generated by the tax increases would go to pensions, and not classrooms, thus placing even more of a tax burden on Colorado residents in a fragile economy. Sen. Roberts echoed State Treasurer Walker Stapleton’s criticism this week that the initiative lacks financial safeguards and produces little transparency.
"If this doesn't pass this fall, I believe proponents should go back to the drawing board, include key stakeholders, including rural area schools, to find a better approach," Sen. Roberts said.
Roberts said the last legislative session was the "least constructive" of anything she has seen in her Senate tenure, as lawmakers maneuvered through issues including gun control, civil unions, death penalty repeal,renewable energy mandates and marijuana regulation.
If Innovative 22 fails in November, it would not invalidate the existence of SB213. The bill, now law, can only be implemented if funding is raised.
Under SB213, Montrose would not be required to increase its mill levy to meet requirements in the bill's language determining public funding levels.
Miller, who testified in February Senate hearings on SB213, said Initiative 22 could have Telluride voters tasked with increasing the mil levy by 2-1/2 mills within five years to help pay for losses associated with cost of living expenses, another factor in SB213 funding formulas.
"Then we can start growing," Miller said, adding: "We all know early education is critical for success.
Miller suggested that Ouray and San Miguel county school districts could face increasing the number of mills to meet SB213's requirements. The level of public funding is different in each district, but Miller said Norwood is in an "extreme" category, in terms of public funds levels in relation to SB213.
Schools in Norwood are funded by less than 10 percent of locally generated tax revenue, and district voters there could face drastically raising property taxes to reach state mill levy requirements.
A phone call to House District 58 Representative Don Coram was not returned.
The next regular Montrose RE-1J school board meeting takes place Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the District Offices.