Schools could get short-changed in budget battle
How Colorado schools are funded
In Colorado, education funding is generated largely through local property taxes, as well as excise taxes on things like motor vehicles.
All of Eagle County’s property tax money goes to the state, where it’s redistributed equally on a per-pupil basis to school districts around the state.
Right now, 6,723.5 little blessings from above attend Eagle County’s schools. Under the Colorado’s School Finance Act, they’re funded at $6,959 per pupil funding in state funding.
EAGLE COUNTY — State lawmakers will have nearly $50 million more in tax revenue than they thought they’d have, but local schools probably won’t see much of it.
The Colorado Legislative Council and Office of State Planning and Budgeting released their March revenue forecasts, saying they show continued strong economic growth.
Legislative Council chief economist Natalie Mullis told the Joint Budget Committee that 2014-15 revenue was expected to be nearly $50 million more than budgeted.
However, Mullis doused any legislative dreams of spending the money, saying TABOR refunds would probably consume all of that and more
Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, caps state spending and requires tax increases to be approved by voters. Any revenue above that amount is required to be returned to taxpayers.
TABOR projections can be a moving target. They’ve gotten larger in the past year as Colorado’s economy has improved, and therefore have created TABOR surpluses sooner and greater in each forecast, said Tracie Rainey with the Colorado School Finance Project.
Some estimates have projected those TABOR surpluses at $200 million this year and $600 million next year. Colorado voters could allow the state to keep the money, as they did in 2006 when they approved Referendum C.
“So far, no one has stepped up to lead that cause,” said Jason Glass, superintendent of Eagle County Schools.
Asking for more
Along with everyone else, schools saw their budgets decimated when the recession hit.
“We cut almost $1 billion from the state’s education funding during the recession. All we’re asking for is what was taken away when budgets were cut,” Glass said.
In a letter earlier this month to the Joint Budget Committee signed by 174 of Colorado’s 178 school superintendents, including Glass, the superintendents asked for $70 million more in school funding:
• $50 million as a per-pupil allocation based on poverty levels, as defined by the number of students eligible for either free or reduced-price lunches. In Eagle County, 42 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
• $20 million as a per-pupil to “small rural” school districts, fewer than 1,000 students as defined by the Rural Education Council.
The additional money would be welcome, Glass said, but for now, local school administrators are putting together next year’s budget assuming they’ll get no more money from the state.
“We’re developing our budget on some really conservative estimates,” Glass said.
Local school administrators are figuring adding 2.7 percent to the budget, a $245 increase per pupil, Glass said.
Schools will share in some of Colorado’s increased tax revenue. Gov. John Hickenlooper asked state lawmakers to increase K-12 education spending by $380 million next year.
Budget bullets already flying
The first shots in the education budget battle were fired just days into this year’s legislative session. In January, Democrats on the House Finance Committee killed a bill that would have funneled end-of-year state surpluses, below TABOR limits, into special accounts for K-12 and higher education — 70 percent for K-12 and 30 percent for higher education.
The state’s surplus is what’s left after the state pays its bills and balances its books, usually somewhere between $20 million and $45 million, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.
Under Becker’s bill, the K-12 transfers would have continued until the state’s $890 million school funding shortfall had been eliminated.
Becker compared that $890 million the shortfall to an unpaid credit card balance.
But House Bill 1058 died on a 6-5 straight party line vote, six Democrats voting against it and five Republicans voting for it. Those six Democrats spent about a half hour complimenting Becker and his bill, and insisting that they also support more money for schools.
Democratic committee members pointed out that lawmakers can already do that, and insisted that the bill would limit the flexibility of future legislatures.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.