The General Assembly could make major progress on buying down the state’s debt to K-12 public education under the School Finance Act, which cleared the House Education Committee Monday on an 11-2 vote.
House Bill 1379 includes an extra $150 million, a request OK’d by both the governor and the Joint Budget Committee, to pay a little more of the state’s debt to K-12, which started in 2010 with a $1 billion shortfall in K-12 funding.
Colorado’s public school system includes more than 900,000 students and about 35,000 educators.
With the $150 million included in House Bill 1379 and another $6 million approved through JBC action in February, the budget stabilization factor could drop from around $828 million at the beginning of the year to $672,4 million as contained in the 2018-19 state budget.
There’s more money for rural education in the school finance bill, too: a $30 million boost that would go to rural schools, both large and small, to pay for one-time only expenses, such as attracting and retaining teachers, loan forgiveness, technology and educator training. The money would be split with 55 percent going to large rural districts – those with between 1,000 and 6,500 students and based on distance from an urban area – and 45 percent to small districts, those with less than 1,000 students and also based on geographic proximity to an urban area.
More than 100 school districts, out of 178 total in Colorado, qualify as small rural; another 45 qualify as large rural.
Overall per-pupil funding will increase by $222, to $6,768.77. That does not take into account other sources of funding for K-12, including federal funds and property taxes or mill levy overrides approved by voters in each school district.
House Bill 1379 went through a relatively quick hearing Monday, with just a handful of witnesses testifying, but the room was full to capacity with red-shirted teachers who were at the Capitol Monday for the Colorado Education Association’s Lobbying Day and to ask lawmakers for more money for teacher pay.
While the funding news is good for education, one witness pointed out that “painful conversations” are taking place around the state, including layoffs, pay freezes and/or increased workloads.
Amie Baca-Oehlert of the Colorado Education Association pointed out that Colorado ranks in the bottom five of states on per-student spending nationwide, despite one of the hottest economies in the nation. Educators have had their pay cut by more than 17 percent in the past 15 years, she said, and that doesn’t include out-of-pocket expenses that teachers often shoulder, an average of $650 per teacher per year. Many educators are working two and three jobs to make ends meet and cannot afford to live in the communities where they work.
Baca-Oehlert also put in a plug for how the General Assembly will deal with a transportation bill that could lock the state into bond payments – in good economic times and bad ones – for 20 years. “Do not lock us into 20 years of transportation bond payments of nearly $250 million per year when we are chronically underfunding our schools,” she asked. “Commit to putting us on a path to eliminate the Budget Stabilization factor by 2022 and move us to the national average in per-pupil funding.”
Lawmakers, sensitive to the issue of low teacher pay, asked Baca-Oehlert and Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards how to improve that situation. Democratic Rep. Alec Garnett of Denver asked why the boost in funding isn’t helping with pay for teachers. “It doesn’t seem to trickle down to those who need it most,” he said.
“These dollars will help,” Cook told the committee, as school boards are now entering into salary negotiations with teachers. But each one of Colorado’s 178 school districts has a different way of handling its situation, he said. Cook also pointed out that teacher walkouts in Oklahoma and West Virginia, over low pay, are happening in states with statewide salary schedules, unlike Colorado.
Democratic Rep. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village said that it appears the best lawmakers can do is give money to the districts and hope it gets to the right people.
House Bill 1379 now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.