School finance takes stage at the Legislature

Currently working its way through the state Legislature is a critical bill that could affect how our schools will be funded in the future.

This bill, known as the New School Finance Act or Senate Bill 13-213, is the first attempt to change the School Finance Act since 1994 when the current act was introduced. Today, Colorado school districts rank among the lowest funded in the nation, falling more than $7,000 per student behind our other states. Thanks to the voters of Durango, our last two mill levies have been helpful in closing the gap between us and other districts in the state, but we still have a long way to go.

Recently, a delegation from La Plata County to traveled to Denver to testify on this new bill introduced by Denver Sen. Mike Johnston. The first form of this bill required massive tax increases in more than 20 districts. In Durango alone, the bill would have required a massive tax increase more than doubling taxes on local homeowners and businesses. While our taxes are low in comparison to other districts, our assessed property value is highly affected by the volatile gas and oil market causing huge swings in this valuation. Of the $80 million sought through new property taxation, one quarter of that would have come from La Plata County.

While in Denver, our delegation was able to work with the Senate Education Subcommittee to introduce and secure amendments to this bill that both eliminated the required tax increases and sought to address our school district’s per-pupil funding that is amongst the lowest in the state. Major changes were secured as the bill left the subcommittee and headed to the floor of the Senate where it will be heard April 1. This bill is by no means through and after successful passage is secured, will require a ballot measure to be taken to the voters as the state will need to infuse $1 billion of new funding into the K-12 system. Voters will need to decide if they wish for school funding to move from its current ranking among the lowest in the nation.

What struck me more than anything is the manner in which our Legislature is handling this bill – and likely other bills. For two days, I watched as lobbyists and leaders of large, influential districts testified in favor of this bill encouraging swift passage as the benefit to them and their districts was significant. Our delegation from La Plata County and superintendents from other rural districts were left sitting for more than six hours waiting for our turn to share the negative effect this legislation would have on students. Many were even passed over until they demanded an opportunity to speak.

We are thankful that the current bill, while still in its early stages, will have some positive effect on all districts. A concern exists as to how the Legislature finds it acceptable to place greater value on children in some parts of our state over children in our community.

We are grateful for the support provided by Sen. Ellen Roberts, Rep. Mike McLachlan and local leaders. We encourage residents to reach out and show their support for this bill as now amended by contacting senators and representatives from around the state.

Dan Snowberger is the superintendent of the Durango School District. Reach him at dsnowberger@durango.k12.co.us.

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