WESTERN SAN JUANS – Alpine Wellness, one of Telluride’s three retail pot shops, has served over 1,100 people since opening its doors on New Year’s Day, according to Will Evans, the store’s director of marketing.
Statewide, the nearly 40 retail marijuana dispensaries across Colorado made $5 million selling the formerly-illegal drug in their first week of business.
Although none of the retail pot shops in Telluride have released gross sales numbers, the State of Colorado expects to collect $70 million in tax revenues from the state’s budding industry, according to the information accompanying Proposition AA, the statute Colorado voters passed in November establishing a taxing system for the new industry.
AA stipulates that the first $40 million in retail pot revenues are earmarked exclusively “for public school capital construction as required by the state constitution….”
But revenues from the tax do not exclusively benefit communities that permit retail marijuana commerce. Rather, the State of Colorado will collect the revenues and distribute them to districts applying for the funds via state grants, regardless of their town’s position regarding retail marijuana sales.
Mary Lynn Christel, a consultant for the Public School Finance Department of the Colorado Department of Education, said the earmarked $40 million will be available for distribution through the Building Excellent Schools Today grant network, the program funded by the Colorado Department of Education’s Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance that helps fund capital improvement projects in public schools across the state.
But the Telluride School District will likely not see any BEST grant funds from the state, even though the town it serves is home to three retail marijuana shops.
“The community of Telluride as a whole has always been very supportive of education,” said Telluride School Superintendent Kyle Schumacher. Since local taxes have supported the district, state funding has not been needed, or available.
“There are districts across the state that are in more need of capital construction projects than the Telluride School District,” Schumacher said. “I never want to see any district be denied funding because of policy decisions its town makes. I would always like more funding for my district, but the fact is that there are districts in this state that need the funding more than we do.”
The disparity between districts is evident just 65 miles north of Telluride, where the Montrose/ Olathe School District faces substantial financial hurdles. The district is eligible for BEST grants, even if that means accepting revenues generated by taxing the sale of marijuana, which the two towns do not permit.
Fifty-seven percent of Montrose County voters said no to Amendment 64 in 2012, which legalized recreational use of the drug. By comparison, nearly 60 percent of the county’s voters approved of Proposition AA, possibly signaling that although Montrose County does not permit the use of marijuana, it is willing to benefit from it.
Regardless of the town’s policy toward retail marijuana, Montrose/Olathe School District Superintendent Mark MacHale’s top priority is replacing the crumbling Columbine Middle School.
The district, which cannot afford to replace the school – an estimated $14 million undertaking – was a finalist for a $7 million BEST grant this summer, but ultimately lost the bid. The need to replace Columbine Middle School school remains.
“We replaced a wing of Columbine Middle in 2008, but we have approximately 55,000 square-feet of it that needs to be replaced entirely,” said MacHale. “It looks like replacement is more economical than patching it up; the numbers are leading in that direction.”
While replacing the aging middle school is the district’s top priority, he added, “We have an almost endless list of capital improvements we need to address. One of our problems is paying for maintaining and upgrading our schools. The general operating fund for maintenance and repairs is one of our needs as well.”
The district is applying for more BEST grants, including a $170,000 grant to repair the roof at Oak Grove Elementary School, and a $500,000 grant to upgrade the heating and air conditioning system at Montrose High School.
Montrose City Councilor Carol McDermott, a former educator and school board member, said that all communities – even those not permitting retail marijuana sales – should benefit from the tax.
“I don’t think that our not permitting marijuana sales excludes us from benefiting from the marijuana tax,” said McDermott. “If there’s a tax across the board on recreational marijuana sales, the tax generated should go to everyone in the state, and should be distributed according to need.”
‘Sounds Like a Lot, but It Isn’t’
While the majority of pot-generated tax dollars are earmarked for public school improvement projects, MacHale is not depending on state-funded BEST grants alone to fix his schools.
“The $40 million sounds like a lot of money, but it is not enough to build one high school in the state,” he said.
“I’m pretty cautious about saying that we’re going to get [BEST] money in our district. I wish it was different,” said MacHale. “There are approximately 1,000 schools in Colorado; the chances of us having the political clout to get that money here in Montrose is relatively slim.
“We are one of the lowest-funded districts in the state, and Colorado is one of the lowest in the nation. Our budgets were cut by about $7 million by the state in the past several years,” he said, adding that the district has improved its student performance, despite dwindling revenues.
“My task was straightforward: improve student performance,” he said. “Thanks to improvements in technology and staff retention, we’re really starting to see some improvements.”
In 2013, the district was accredited by the Colorado Department of Education for the first time in recent memory, according to District Communications and Special Projects Coordinator Mindy Baumgardner.
“When it comes to improving facilities, you can’t do that without money,” said MacHale. “But we’re doing everything we can with the money we’ve been given. We think we can do more and do it better if we have additional funding.”