Superintendents aim to reform school finance

McCleary represents Holyoke at press conference

    Superintendents and all but a handful of Colorado’s 178 public school districts spoke with a unified voice last week to advocate for a legislative ballot measure they say will fix Colorado’s school finance funding formula.
    The ballot measure is contained within House Bill 1232, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dave Young of Greeley in the House. Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose and Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood are the measure’s Senate sponsors.
    More than two dozen superintendents from urban, rural and suburban school districts showed up at Denver’s Dora Moore Elementary School to publicly plead with the General Assembly to support the bill, which would also need voter approval in the fall.
    The superintendents have been working for two years to come up with a new formula that could guide the financing of public education in Colorado in the future. They pointed out the school finance formula has been unchanged for close to 25 years.
    When the current school finance formula was revised in 1994, voters had recently approved the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Amendment 23, which requires K-12 education be funded at the rate of inflation, was six years in the future.
    In the meantime, K-12 is underfunded by $828 million, the result of the 2008 recession. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed reducing that IOU by $110 million in the 2018-19 budget as well as another $30 million boost to rural schools, extending for a second year the extra dollars those districts got from the 2017 omnibus bill for rural Colorado.
    Superintendents said they understand the bill comes at a time when funding for public education conflicts with other priorities, such as transportation. But Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the south Denver metro Englewood school district, said education also must be one of those priorities.
    Schools all over the state are facing teacher shortages, in part due to low pay. Rubin noted that 95 percent of teachers in rural school districts don’t make enough to meet basic living costs. More than half of the school districts in the state have one or more schools on four-day school weeks due to budget cuts, and more are considering them, she said. And this in a state with a healthy and growing economy and a $1 billion budget surplus, she pointed out.
    If voters approved a new school finance formula, K-12 would not initially require any additional state support, the group noted. That’s because the formula would not go into effect until the money is there to pay for the changes.
    The formula calculates each school district’s total program funding, beginning with a statewide per-pupil amount. Additional dollars come in for student and district characteristics, such as gifted and talented; English language learners; students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty; special education; and a cost of living factor. There’s also a size factor, based on those other characteristics, that would put extra money into smaller, rural districts.
    The formula would hold harmless districts that could lose money under the change. One estimate said the proposed formula would cost the state an additional $1.8 billion.
    Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain school district in Colorado Springs, acknowledged that the superintendents are not experts in legislation. “But given our collective knowledge and experience in administering the affairs of public school districts, we are uniquely equipped to develop a school finance formula that takes into account those requirements and today’s students.”

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