EAGLE — On their way out the door, Colorado state lawmakers increased funding for Eagle County’s schools by $2.4 million.
That’s a far cry from the $350,000 that was on the table a few weeks ago, but it’s still well short of the additional $5.5 million in additional funding that’s supposed to be coming to local schools this year under Colorado’s K-12 education finance formula.
As it is, local schools will see a 5.7 percent increase in state funding.
That comes on the heels of more than $8 million in state funding cuts, forcing the Eagle County school district to cut 100 jobs over two years.
When this year’s legislative session started, increased education funding was not among state lawmakers’ publicly stated goals.
However, when superintendents and then the public stormed the Bastille demanding increased school funding, led by Eagle County Schools Superintendent Jason Glass, lawmakers began to see things the other way.
The district’s administrators are happy for the additional $2.4 million, but it doesn’t make up for the cuts forced upon them.
It also comes with another round of unfunded state mandates, ranging from more online testing for which the district must buy computers to creating more online financial records — when the district already generates more than 300 pages of budget documents, Glass said.
The money will go to some salaries and they’ll hire a few new teachers to plug some of the holes left by the budget cuts.
“Education is a labor intensive industry. About 85 percent of the budget pays people,” said Dan Dougherty, the school district’s communications director.
Right now, the student/teacher ratio is about 16-1. That will drop a little by adding a few teachers, Dougherty said.
PERA will devour the rest.
For every school district employee — in fact, for every public sector employee across the state — governments are required to contribute the equivalent of 19 percent of that employee’s salary into Colorado’s Public Employee Retirement Association. The payment schedule, made law by Colorado’s legislature, increases that contribution to 20 percent in the near future.
“PERA is on one side increasing expenses and TABOR on the other side ratcheting down funding,” Dougherty said.
Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is an outspoken critic of the way PERA has been handled, saying the public pension fund has created a $26 billion liability.
One of the fund’s biggest problems is the PERA board’s 7.5 percent projected rate of return on the fund’s investments. The board voted to reduce it from 8 percent projected ROI after Amendment 66 lost last November by 32 percentage points.
“It assumes an outlook of lollypops and rainbows for the next 30 years, and that lets them off the hook for funding it sufficiently,” Stapleton said.
He said the game that’s played is to keep the rate of return artificially as high as possible.
That means it’s not being funded properly at the local level. That’s trouble down the road, and that road’s not long, Stapleton said.
As state treasurer, Stapleton is one of the fund’s 15 board members and asked for information about how PERA ended up in a hold that deep.
The Public Employees Retirement Association hired an attorney to tell him he couldn’t have it, he said. So far, PERA has won two rulings, both from judges who are PERA members, he said.
It’s now being considered by Colorado’s Supreme Court.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.