If anyone has a vested interest in the quality of La Plata County’s roads and bridges, it’s area schools. So on Wednesday, the Durango School District 9-R board endorsed the ballot initiative to raise taxes to pay for maintenance and improvements to infrastructure.
It also stepped into statewide politics with the endorsement of push to seek change in Colorado’s school finance act.
“Our buses travel more than half a million miles every year, much of it on county roads,” 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said. “In the last year, we’ve seen a tragedy after an accident, not caused wholly by the road, but that was a factor.”
In November, a 9-R bus rolled over on Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207). A new driver reaching for a whistle to quiet shouting students was the primary cause of the crash, but the fact there was virtually no shoulder on the narrow road contributed. Several elementary school students were injured, but none were life-threatening injuries.
Two weeks later, the county repaired that section of the road, widening the shoulder and installing a guardrail, but other roads throughout the county remain challenging for bus drivers.
“Is the county going to endorse our mill levy?” board member Matt Sheldon asked about the $1.7 million tax increase 9-R is seeking in November.
“I don’t care if they do,” Snowberger said. “This is a safety issue for us.”
The board unanimously approved the endorsement of Ballot Initiative 1A to raise taxes by up to 2.4 mills. The property tax would raise about $40 million for the county over 10 years, to be used for 12 reconstruction projects impacting 24 miles of road, 32 miles of asphalt paving at 12 locations and 11 bridge and intersection projects.. The tax would sunset in 10 years.
School funding formulaIt’s no secret Colorado schools struggle with finances, particularly after the 2008 recession, because of funding restrictions in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Durango 9-R’s request for a tax increase is one part of its efforts to increase the money it receives for a student population where more than one-third live at or below the poverty line.
The School Finance Act of 1994 and its revisions have created a labyrinthine formula for funding schools. The district is joining with 13 other districts in an Opportunity Coalition to lobby for a change in the formula used to allocate state funds to districts. The board also approved a resolution requesting that the Colorado Association of School Boards include the request in its efforts as CASB lobbies the state Legislature in the 2017 session.
The formula would affect the $1 billion in cost-of-living funding and approximately $330 million in at-risk student funding, essentially flipping them. District 9-R would see about $400,000 in additional revenues, about 1 percent of its budget.
“There’s a double cost-of-living factor in the formula now,” Snowberger said. “One is the general cost-of-living, then there’s a second for personnel, for districts who need to pay staff more because of the cost of living.”
Despite Durango’s high housing costs, Durango does not receive much in the cost-of-living factor, while Jefferson County, for example, gets much more, he said.
“If you look at Jefferson County or Cherry Creek or Boulder, their average teacher salaries are in the $80,000s,” he said. “Our scale doesn’t even go that high. I just hired a veteran teacher from Cherry Creek who was making $85,000 a year. She comes in at $51,000 here.”
The competition for qualified teachers in Colorado makes it difficult for rural districts and districts with lower property values to hire.
“You have a district with a high level of poverty like Sheridan, which is surrounded by Littleton, Cherry Creek and other districts, that receive much higher per-pupil revenues,” Snowberger said. “They’re competing for a fixed set of teachers, and the teachers can drive two blocks and make twice the salary.”
The resolution refers to research conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Researchers in different states have reached similar conclusions: In order to reduce significantly the academic achievement gap, school districts need funding for poor students equal to two or two-and-half times the cost of educating non-poor students.”
The district’s request would improve funding for 169 of Colorado’s 178 school districts, Snowberger said, those with lower property values and higher poverty levels. One of the things the formula change would do is give districts such as Center, which has 86 percent of its population living in poverty, more funding per student than Aspen, with its 3.5 percent poverty rate.
The other nine districts would see a decrease in funding.
“The largest cut would be $11 million from one district,” he said, “but that’s out of a $555 million budget.”
The Montezuma-Cortez School District would see the greatest increase in funding in Southwest Colorado.
“I don’t have any problem with that,” Snowberger said. “They’re the lowest funded in our nine counties, and they have a lot of at-risk students.”
This proposal was presented to the Colorado Senate in the 2016 session.
“It did get to the floor of the Senate and failed on a voice vote,” Snowberger said. “Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) did support it, and she thought it passed, but it was 11:55 p.m., and the chair called it.”
Some board members will attend a regional CASB meeting and/or a state CASB conference over the coming months, where they expect to promote the resolution.
“Other districts have notified CASB they want to support it,” Snowberger said. “The Rural Coalition is taking the opposite view, so I’m not sure they understand what we are proposing. How the controversy started I don’t know, we ran financials, and everyone stands to win.”
While an additional $400,000 would be helpful, it doesn’t solve the district’s financial problems, Snowberger said. The district has frozen staff salaries for this school year, has about $1 million in deferred maintenance annually and needs to upgrade technology on an ongoing basis, all reasons it is asking for a tax increase from voters in November.