Superintendents: Bill shortchanges local schools

Proposal would require property-tax increases for all school districts in the county

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, consults with La Plata County real estate agent John Gillam, Durango School District 9-R superintendent Daniel Snowberger and Bayfield school superintendent Troy Zabel during a hearing Tuesday on Johnstonís plan for school finance at the state Capitol in Denver. La Plata school districts would be among the few left behind in Johnstonís plan to boost school funding by more than $1 billion a year. Enlarge photo

JOE HANEL/Durango Herald

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, consults with La Plata County real estate agent John Gillam, Durango School District 9-R superintendent Daniel Snowberger and Bayfield school superintendent Troy Zabel during a hearing Tuesday on Johnstonís plan for school finance at the state Capitol in Denver. La Plata school districts would be among the few left behind in Johnstonís plan to boost school funding by more than $1 billion a year.

DENVER Ė La Plata County school superintendents spoke out Wednesday about a new plan for funding Coloradoís schools, saying their districts would be left behind despite a potential billion-dollar tax increase.

The idea is the brainchild of Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who wants to rewrite the stateís complicated formula that dictates how much money schools get each year.

His Senate Bill 213 directs more money to districts for special education, children who donít speak English, at-risk students and full-day kindergarten. It counts on districts with low local property tax rates to shoulder more of the burden for their schools.

The bill wouldnít take effect until the 2014-15 school year, and not unless Colorado voters approved a statewide tax increase, estimated at $1.1 billion a year.

Johnstonís co-sponsor, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said the current formula doesnít work for everyone.

ďWhat weíre trying to do here is expand the pie,Ē Heath said. ďThere is no school district, no child in the state who isnít going to benefit from this bill.Ē

La Plata County school leaders disagree.

As originally written, Johnstonís bill would have required all three La Plata County school districts to raise their property taxes by 2020. Durango School District 9-R would have been one of the two biggest losers in the state Ė along with schools in Rifle Ė with an annual shortfall of more than $12 million.

Superintendents from La Plata County met with Johnston for two hours Tuesday morning. Johnston began the first hearing on his bill that afternoon by saying he intended to amend it to make sure Durango and about two dozen other school districts donít lose money if they donít raise their taxes.

Durango 9-R Superintendent Daniel Snowberger said his district still canít support the bill, even with Johnstonís changes, because it keeps La Plata schools at the same funding while most other districts would get increases.

ďItís definitely an improvement. But when you have increases of $1,400 to $1,500 for large metro districts, itís difficult to understand how a child in Durango would be valued less than a child in Denver,Ē Snowberger said in an interview.

Snowberger testified around 8 p.m., along with superintendents from Bayfield and Ignacio, plus John Gillam, a Durango real estate agent.

Gillam said La Plata voters would have a hard time supporting a statewide tax increase when almost every school in the state would benefit but theirs.

ďWhat do we see in it for the people of La Plata? Really, we donít see anything,Ē Gillam said.

However, Snowberger said he hoped the district would be able to support the bill if future amendments are added.

La Plata schools appear to be falling victim to little-known laws and a natural-gas and oil boom that drove down property-tax rates over the last 20 years.

The last time legislators changed the school-finance act, in 1994, they set up a formula that wound up shifting the burden for schools from local taxpayers to the state.

Tax-limiting laws such as the Taxpayerís Bill of Rights led to lower property-tax rates since the 1990s. Local taxpayers used to pay 70 percent of the cost of their schools, and the state 30 percent, Johnston said.

ďAs of next year, that formula will be almost perfectly reversed,Ē he said.

The effect is especially pronounced in wealthy districts, where local tax rates are lower than in poorer districts. La Plataís three school districts fall into the wealthy category because of the countyís position as Coloradoís top natural-gas producer for much of the last 20 years.

Johnstonís aim is to halt the increasing reliance of local districts on state aid in districts that can afford to pay their own bills.

The bill depends on a citizenís initiative to ask voters for a tax increase. That initiative has not yet been filed, so itís unclear exactly what taxes could be raised.

The Senate Education Committee heard several hours of testimony on Senate Bill 213 Tuesday but delayed a vote until today.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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