State eyes school funding

Veronica Whitney

“We hope state legislators can find a solution to protect education funding as the state deals with deficit issues,” says Karen Strakbein, director of finance for the Eagle County School District.

Gov. Bill Owens has said he may ask lawmakers to give voters the chance to modify a popular school-funding initiative to give the state more flexibility in lean times.

“Looking at the current legislative session, Colorado state government must make up an $850 million deficit,” Strakbein says. “As of this point, to my knowledge, there is no specific bill related to interpretations of Amendment 23, but discussions have been occurring.”

In 2000, Coloradans passed Amendment 23, which requires the Legislature to increase funding for K-12 education by the rate of inflation plus 1 percent for 10 years. After that, lawmakers have to increase education funding by at least the rate of inflation. Without that requirement, lawmakers would have an additional $200 million this year to help offset the budget deficit, says the governor’s policy director, Rick O’Donnell.

To erase the deficit, lawmakers are slashing programs while funding for public education is growing. Some legislators have proposed eliminating the requirement that all high school juniors take the ACT college board test. And House Democrats have submitted a list of possible cuts, including elimination of 10 Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, which would save the state about $3.8 million.

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“”We want to keep the spirit of Amendment 23 while making sure it doesn’t gut the rest of government,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell told the Rocky Mountain News the governor is considering asking lawmakers to place a measure on the ballot as early as this November to make some changes. Among them would be requiring growth of inflation plus 1 percent only when the state has surplus funds.

But Owens’ spokesman, Dan Hopkins, says that statement was premature.

“”While there is broad consensus that Amendment 23 has difficulties at this point, still the issue is how best to deal with those problems and see what the Legislature discusses over the next several months,” Hopkins says.

O’Donnell says that under the new proposal, education funding would grow at the rate of growth of state revenues if there is not enough income to meet the inflation-plus-1-percent formula. If the state is running a deficit, as it is now, education funding would grow only by the amount needed to keep up with enrollment increases. The proposal would also would change the source of funding from sales taxes to income taxes.

“We do not support changes to the spirit of Amendment 23,” Strakbein says. “Even during the previous decade of robust economic times, the state Legislature chose to continually fund schools below the rate of inflation. That practice is what caused citizens to bring Amendment 23 to the voters, to mandate the Legislature fund K-12 public education appropriately.”

O’Donnell says the administration has asked backers of Amendment 23 for suggestions on how to make changes, but hasn’t received an answer.

Cary Kennedy, the author of the amendment, says she has been talking with numerous lawmakers, political leaders, government officials and others about Amendment 23 and the economy. She says she also delivered a letter to the governor last week.

Kennedy says backers have offered several suggestions to keep the trust fund solvent, including using the $80 million in taxes the state collects annually on estates over $1 million.

Because more than 70 percent of Eagle County School District’s expenditures goes to salaries, if the state decides to cut funding, local schools could lose teachers, says Pam Holmes Boyd, spokeswoman for the district.

“That would result in larger classrooms,” Boyd adds.

To deal with possible cuts from the state, Assistant Superintendent John Brendza says school principals and department heads have been asked to keep an eye on their budgets.

“At this point, it’s wait and see,” Brendza said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

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