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Colo. senator seeks $1B school tax

Measure comes as state Supreme Court rules on education-finance system

DENVER – A state senator is proposing a $1 billion tax increase to fund the first major change in 20 years to the way Colorado pays for its schools.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, has previously sponsored controversial school-reform legislation, including an end to seniority-based job protection for teachers.

On Monday, he unveiled what he called the capstone of those efforts – a new school-finance system to pay for the reforms passed by the Legislature. But if his bill passes, it would not take effect unless voters approve a historic tax increase for schools.

“We see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to get this right,” Johnston said.

He found several faults in the current school-finance system, which he noted was put in place before most people had cellphones or email.

Under the current system, the richest districts have the lowest property tax rates and still get hefty state subsidies. Johnston’s plan would start to shift responsibility for schools back to local taxpayers, who bore most of the cost 20 years ago.

His plan also would eliminate cost-of-living payments from the state to expensive areas such as mountain resorts. It’s harder for districts to hang onto teachers in low-cost Eastern Plains towns such as Arikaree than it is in resort areas such as Telluride, he said.

But no district would lose money under his plan, he said.

“There are only winners and bigger winners,” he said.

The Legislature currently spends a little more than $5 billion on public education. Johnston estimated his new system would require an additional $750 million to $1.1 billion a year.

When the recession began, Colorado started cutting its school budget, and cuts now total more than $1 billion yearly. The average funding per student is now about $6,500, instead of the $7,700 it would have been without the cuts.

Johnston released a draft of the 140-page bill Monday, and he expects to formally introduce it in about two weeks, after a few more public meetings to discuss it.

Johnston and his backers already have held six public meetings around the state and worked with some 2,000 educators to draft the bill.

The proposal comes as legislators are waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the current school-finance system. A lower court declared that funding is so low it violates the constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and uniform” education to every Colorado child.

Under Johnston’s plan, a separate citizen initiative will be filed to ask voters for the tax increase. That initiative was not released Monday.

The campaign will be fighting against Colorado’s history.

In 2011, voters turned down a tax increase for schools, Proposition 103, on nearly a 2-to-1 margin. That effort drew support from only a few public officials, along with tepid positive statements from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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