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April 1, 2013
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Bill could mean $4.6M for local schools

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Eagle County's schools could get $4.6 million more if a bill making its way through the state Legislature becomes law.

Senate Bill 13-213 would shift school funding mechanism away from the state and back to local school districts, says the bill's author, Denver Democrat Michael Johnston, a Vail native.

In its current form, Johnson's bill would increase statewide school funding between $950 million and $1.3 billion. The money would come from some sort of income tax increase, not property taxes, Johnston's staff said.

The package was back on the Colorado Senate floor Monday morning. It is expected to pass in the Colorado Senate early this week, then move to the House, Johnston's staff said. Gov. John Hickenlooper has spoken in favor of the bill and is expected to sign it if it comes to his desk.

Even if it gets through the Senate and House and governor signs it, because it's a tax increase, voters will have to approve it in November.

Even then, the money won't show up for a year or two.

The school district has plenty to do without trying to figure out what to do with money it doesn't have, and may never. The money wouldn't come until 2015 or 2016.

"There's a lot of time between now and when the actual money flows. We'll decide what happens with it when it comes," said Phil Onofrio, the school district's chief financial officer. "The trick will be to use it in the best ways to help kids."

The bill sidesteps Colorado's TABOR Amendment, Amendment 23 and the Gallagher Amendment. The three simultaneously limit property taxes and government growth, while guaranteeing increases in state education spending.

"There's a longer-term constitutional fix out there. The immediate need for the schools is a financing mechanism. It tries to balance school funding between the state and the local districts," Johnston's staff said in a statement.

The human factor

When the recession hit, Eagle County funding per student dropped from $7149 to $6,741. The school district cut $9 million from its budget, and most of it came from the $52 million general fund, say district officials. About 80 percent of the general fund is spent on salaries and benefits.

The school district cut 79 full-tine positions last year, including teachers and hourly staff. Another 20 people saw their work-week shortened.

The year before that the school district cut 15 full-time positions, and another 20 positions took a pay cut by having their hours decreased, said Brian Childress, the school district's human resources director.

"Johnston's bill would be a step in the right direction for Eagle County Schools, but would not cover all of the revenue lost over the last years of downturn," Childress said.

Colorado's education funding has not changed since 1994 when state lawmakers passed the Public School Finance Act. Almost half of Colorado's state budget is spent on education, $5.2 billion for 2011-12, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Most of the money for schools comes from property taxes and vehicle registration taxes.

Colorado's 178 school district are funded for each student, and that would not change under Johnston's bill. What does change is the amount, and where some of that money comes from.

Right now, the least any school district receives is $5,634.77 per student. Under Johnston's bill, the baseline would be $7,500.

Eagle County's funding would increase $521 per student. It would increase $529 per student in Summit County; Summit County's overall increase would be $2.4 million when everything is added in.

Johnston's bill also raises the cap on property taxes that local voters could approve, if the school district ever opts to try again. Eagle County voters soundly defeated the school district's last property tax increase request.

The rest of the school district's budget is spent on line items like paying off voter-approved bond debt, around $25 million per year.

In total, taxpayers will spend $11,865 per pupil, including the $235,168,206 in voter-approved bond debt and interest, money spent to build and renovate schools and other capital projects - and not just classroom instruction.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 1, 2013 11:31PM Published Apr 1, 2013 11:29PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.