Uproar delays school measure

La Plata superintendents say state lawmaker’s plan unfair to their districts

DENVER – A complicated plan to redo the way Colorado pays for public education is on hold for two weeks, after it was changed to appease La Plata County schools and about 20 other districts that would have had to raise their taxes.

Meanwhile, several statewide ballot issues to raise income taxes to pay for schools were filed Friday afternoon.

Senate Bill 213 ran into trouble at its first hearing this week when leaders from several school districts protested that the new plan for school budgets would be unfair to their students.

All three La Plata County superintendents went to Denver to testify against the bill Tuesday. As originally written, the bill would have required all three districts to raise their property taxes.

Based in part on their complaints, the sponsor – Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver – amended the bill to make sure no district has to pass a tax increase just to keep their budget intact.

Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said the new amendments came as a relief.

“It’s looking a lot better for our school district,” said Popp. “At least we wouldn’t have to pass on taxes to our homeowners, and it looks like we’ll get additional funding for our students rather than none or less funding or needing to raise $12 million more dollars,” she said.

Popp said the bill, in its evolved form, was far from perfect and still tended to give larger districts preferential treatment over smaller districts.

“It’s not the ideal,” Popp said. “We would hope to have fairly easy access to equal funding same as bigger districts would, but the new version is supported by (superintendent) Dan (Snowberger) and our district.”

Another amendment would raise 9-R’s base funding by the state to $7,000 per student, up from a current $6,468. The new funds would let the district continue with improvements and enhancements to its work, Popp said.

The changes also pleased Rocco Fuschetto, the Ignacio superintendent.

“I can live with the amendments,” Fuschetto said.

However, the bill is still in flux, and the amendments could change.

A sticking point will be the minimum state support per student. Johnston wants to raise the minimum funding beyond what the state now pays the La Plata districts. But a coalition of Republicans and one Democrat on the Senate Education Committee successfully added an amendment to raise the minimum even beyond what Johnston wanted, at a price of around $200 million.

“The challenge is they didn’t balance the budget by saying where the money will come from,” Johnston said.

One possibility would be to raise taxes even beyond what Johnston and his allies want.

“I don’t think voters will like that answer,” Johnston said.

Johnston’s bill seeks to rewrite Colorado’s complicated school finance formula for the first time since 1994.

His idea would focus more state support on districts that need it for full-day kindergarten, at-risk students and English learners. The reform would not take effect until 2014, and not unless voters approve a tax increase of about $1 billion this fall.

Twenty-four possible plans for a tax increase were filed Friday afternoon, the deadline to apply to be on the 2013 ballot.

Backers will choose one, and then they will need to get 86,105 valid signatures from registered Colorado voters.

The school finance bill will have to sit on the shelf for the next two weeks. The Senate will be busy with the state budget next week, and the week after, Johnston will be gone to attend to a family medical issue.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, isn’t unhappy with the delay.

She thinks the current school finance system needs to be changed. But she’s frustrated at the way Johnston’s bill is moving during an unusually busy and emotional legislative session.

“I wish that school finance reworking had been the centerpiece of this legislative session,” Roberts said. “(It) should be an all-hands-on-deck experience.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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