Fiscal analysis bogs down school finance overhaul
State lawmakers hope to submit a bill this session
In Colorado, school funding is like water: There will never be enough, no matter how much you move it around.
State lawmakers did not finish a complex fiscal analysis of Colorado school-finance formula before last week’s deadline, but still hope to introduce a bill in the 2020 legislative session.
For now, though, Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Summit County Democrat and state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said their school finance committee will submit no changes for Colorado’s school finance formula.
In a joint statement, they said they may update the school finance package for “a more targeted approach” that could help support students living in poverty, students with special education needs, and English language learners.
For local school officials, ground zero was proposed changes to how cost-of-living-adjustments would have been divvied up. Eagle County Schools Superintendent Phil Qualman wrote in a letter to state lawmakers that cutting COLA funding would be devastating, not just for Colorado’s high-cost resort districts, as well as more affluent Front Range districts such as Jeffco and Cherry Creek, but also for poorer districts.
“As its name suggests, the cost-of-living factor considers that different markets in Colorado can have vastly different costs-of-living. As part of a resort community with a higher-than-average cost-of-living, Eagle County Schools stood to see funding reduced if the committee’s recommendation moved forward,” Qualman said in a statement Friday. “We’re pleased the committee has decided to not recommend any changes for this year.”
Qualman and many other superintendents opposed the change. They argued that moving funding around within an underfunded formula merely made revenue less reliable and harder to predict for staffing the nearly 50,000 professional educators in the state. Regarding the specific suggestion of eliminating the cost-of-living adjustments, Qualman noted that districts must be able to attract and retain educators in the markets where they exist.
Cost of living
McCluskie said Colorado’s state education budget contains $1.1 billion for cost-of-living adjustments. The goal is to keep some of that money in truly high-cost areas.
“I represent Summit and Aspen. I am very committed to preserving that,” McCluskie said. “We should be more targeted and carve out some of that money for some of our more high-cost districts, such as our mountain resort districts.”
Lawmakers also want to protect rural remote districts with less than 50 or 100 students.
Fiscal analysis is required to accompany a bill, and the 10-member committee could not analyze Colorado’s 178 school districts by the Jan. 8 deadline, McCluskie said.
Colorado’s school-finance formula became state law in 1994, and McCluskie said it really does need an overhaul.
For example, right now the state funds at-risk students — those that qualify for free lunch — with additional money. McCluskie said the committee wants it to expand to free and reduced lunch. Republicans agree, she said.
Those at-risk students are funded with an additional 12% above the per-pupil baseline, around $6,900 per student. The state analysis puts the actual cost at 30% above that baseline, McCluskie said.
She’d like to expand the definition even further.
“Because the cost of living is so high, we have kids who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch who are struggling,” McCluskie said.
McCluskie said the committee will keep hammering away at it, and might introduce a bill in February.
“This work is complex and challenging, and deserves more discussion, analysis and input from our diverse body of education partners and stakeholders,” Lundeen and McCluskie said in a joint statement.
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