Public educated on school funding

Mill levy override explained at Monday meeting

    Educating the public about school funding is the mission of Great Education Colorado and was the focus of the presentation made in Holyoke on Monday, Aug. 7, at noon at the Peerless Center.
    Hosted by Holyoke School District Re-1J, Great Education Colorado was represented by Susan Meek, director of communications, and Hailey McClure. A crowd of about 25 was on hand Monday to learn about the State Finance Act in Colorado and where Holyoke stands in the finance picture.
    Great Education Colorado joined with Colorado Education Network, which is launching an educational campaign this fall.
    Joining the Colorado Education Network was encouraged by Meek for those who believe education is fundamental to families, communities, state and economy. The network is also for those who believe Colorado is not investing adequately or equitably in education and its students.
   As part of the network, people will be informed and have the opportunity to be part of the solution.
    Meek added, “The only way to be successful at the state level is if we can run a very local statewide campaign.” And that is the reason for the effort to reach out to Colorado school districts to help them understand their own financial situations and to explain the reality of school funding in Colorado.
    For perspective, Meek opened her Monday presentation by noting that there are 900,000 students in K-12 public education in the state of Colorado. There are 178 school districts in Colorado, and 75 percent are rural. However, 75 percent of the students are in only 20 districts.
    There are also factors involving the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, English language learners, special education and gifted abilities.
    Colorado school districts are funded primarily by state and local revenues. While the average state contribution is 64 percent with 36 percent local contribution, it varies dramatically across the state.
    For instance, Meek pointed out that Aspen has a 25 percent state share and 75 percent local share. On the other end of the spectrum, Pueblo has 76 percent state share and 24 percent local share.
    Meek noted recent statistics to show that Holyoke collected 52 percent from state sources and 48 percent as the local share. Local sources include property taxes and specific ownership taxes.
School funding is complicated
    The School Finance Act is complicated, to say the least. Colorado school funding starts with a base amount, which must increase by inflation each year. Meek noted that the 2017 base is $6,546.20 per student.
    This base is run through a formula that takes into account fairness factors such as district characteristics (size, cost of living, personnel costs) and student characteristics (at-risk).
    Once the formula sets a district’s total program, it determines how much local property tax will be collected under the district’s mill rate. Then the state backfills the difference between the state-calculated amount per pupil and the local contribution.
    Every district’s total program is different due to district size, cost of living and at-risk kids. Local and state shares vary across school districts depending on property wealth.
    Starting in 2010, each school district’s negative factor has been applied to come up with the district’s total program.
And what is the negative factor?
    Passed in 2000 to reverse cuts to schools in the 1990s, Amendment 23 required base per pupil funding to increase by inflation plus 1 percent for the first 10 years and by inflation after that. Until 2010, total program was calculated as required.
    Then the recession hit, and in order to cut school funding, the Legislature added another fairness factor — the negative factor. A district’s negative factor is the amount that hasn’t been funded since the School Finance Act is not keeping up with inflation.
    Each district’s total program is now reduced by about 12 percent due to the negative factor. Statewide, the total negative factor reductions amount to $5.8 billion from 2010-17. Holyoke School District’s total is $4,364,496.
Mill levy overrides can be sought
    Districts can pass mill levy overrides of up to 30 percent in rural districts to increase local funding. Additional overrides for kindergarten, transportation and tech are also possible.
    Holyoke School District finance director Ben Rahe noted that there is a current MLO of 7 mills that generates about a half million dollars per year.
    Superintendent John McCleary explained how fortunate Holyoke has been to have the taxpayers’ help in this MLO. As a result, he noted, technology has been increased exponentially, facilities have been upgraded, and significant new materials have been purchased, including a new reading program for K-12.
    Holyoke’s MLO was approved by voters through 2020. McCleary said, “There will be a push by the school district to start the discussion on what a renewal of the MLO will look like and in what year to pursue it on the ballot.”
    At Monday’s presentation, Tracy Trumper emphasized the need to show more than just numbers to explain the district status. She suggested comparison of other districts with similar demographics.
    Meek’s presentation included some statewide ranges and where Holyoke School District falls within the ranges.
    The average total program mills is 19.72, with a range of 1.68-27.0. Holyoke’s is 27.0.
    Average bond mills is 6.06, with a range of 0-22.07. Holyoke’s is 3.0.
    The average of total override mills is 4.06, ranging from 0-22.47. Holyoke is at 7.0.
    Total mills in school districts across the state averages at 30.13, ranging from 5.85-66.65. Holyoke’s is 37.089.
    The amount raised by 1 mill averages $578,590, ranging from $3,842-$1,321,694. According to Meek’s comparative figures, Holyoke School District raises $76,722 per mill. This amount varies each year, depending on the assessed valuation of the district.
    Inequities across school districts are growing, added Meek.
    A 2013 update of the adequacy study commissioned for the Lobato case established the base per-pupil funding necessary for a student with no special needs in a district with no special circumstances to meet all standards and requirements. It also established the additional funding needed to ensure that students who do have special needs meet those standards.
    The study found that Colorado’s base funding would have to increase by almost $2,000 per student to meet the needs of a student with no special needs in a district with no special characteristics.
    Comparison of adequacy and this state’s funding found that the Colorado school finance formula doesn’t come close to being adequate for funding for small rural, medium rural, ELL, at-risk, special education, and gifted and talented.
    Colorado’s investment compared to other states has plummeted, noted Meek.
    From 1970 until about the late 1980s, Colorado was at or above the national average in K-12 per-pupil funding. It was steadily about $232 above the average for several years. It started dropping in the late ’80s and continues to do so. In 2010, the Colorado per-pupil funding number was about $1,700 below the national average, and in the next several years, it dropped to $2,070 per student below the national average.
    Additionally, Meek cited that Colorado teacher wages are not competitive nationally. Between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2015-16 year, adjusting for inflation, Colorado teacher salaries declined about $3,700, while the U.S. average was down $770.
    With all this in mind, the Colorado Education Network is pushing for Colorado to invest adequately and equitably in education. A website is in progress for further information: www.ColoradoEduca
    Great Education Colorado is the advocacy organization to keep the public informed. Meek noted that Colorado has a responsibility to be engaged, and she appreciated the opportunity to share information Monday.
“With students’ futures in the balance, the need to address Colorado’s school funding failures is immediate and urgent,” according to a point of emphasis on the Colorado Education Network website.

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