Vail Daily column: Here comes the budget
“The budget this year is not a pretty one.” These were the words Gov. Hickenlooper spoke to more than 1,000 school board members in Colorado Springs last week at the annual Colorado Association of School Boards convention. This was not the news our Eagle County Schools Board of Education or others wanted to hear.
Education funding is heavily predicated on decisions made during the legislative session that begins in January. However, the process starts with the governor’s budget proposal presented in November.
The governor’s budget for schools includes some tough news. While there may be a small increase in K-12 funding, it is not expected to be enough to cover the growth in student enrollment and inflation in the state.
Paradoxically, while Colorado’s economy is booming and the state is supposedly flush with marijuana taxes, we will likely be looking at across the board pay freezes to keep from laying off teachers and other employees. We are not even optimistic that the increases will cover rising health care, utilities and retirement system costs.
For an education system still staggering from the devastating cuts of the recession, where dozens of teachers were let go and pay levels went in reverse (exacerbating the cost of living issues associated with our community), the prospect of more lean years ahead is fiscally and mentally exhausting.
How did we get to this place? To (admittedly) oversimplify, the dwindling levels of Colorado education funding arise from the combined effect of two state constitutional amendments.
Colorado is arguably the easiest state in the country in which to make changes to the state constitution through a vote by the people. In the 1980s, the Gallagher Amendment lowered local residential property taxes, but it dramatically shifted the burden of paying for education to the state level. Then, in the 1990s, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights Amendment began systematically squeezing down state revenue.
So, the source of local school funding was shifted to the state, and then the state pot of money got squeezed.
Schools did get a brief reprieve in the 2000s with Amendment 23 — which was supposed to guarantee increases to school funding at least at the rate of inflation. However, the legislature created a way to circumvent Amendment 23 during the recession by creating an accounting trick called the “negative factor,” where they put money in at the top of the ledger and then subtracted it out further down the page. Recently, the Colorado State Supreme Court ruled that the negative factor was constitutional on a 4-3 split vote, effectively nullifying Amendment 23 and its guaranteed increases to school funding.
Today, this confluence of Constitutional amendments is central to underfunding education in our state. Specifically, TABOR contains a provision that requires tax refunds in the event state revenues outpace a finance formula designed over two decades ago. It is expected taxpayers will be refunded somewhere between $34 and $108 this year, while our teachers face pay freezes, see their benefits costs rise and worry about making ends meet in order to continue to live here.
And what about all that marijuana tax money? Sadly, we’ll see none of the millions collected from the “pot tax” here in Eagle County. Those dollars are restricted for primarily construction needs and are doled out through a grants process targeting poorer communities and charter schools.
On the bright side, we have some options both locally and at the state level that could help or make a significant difference in this problem. However, in my professional opinion we are going to be waiting a long time if we are expecting a state level solution to materialize. I just don’t see the political courage to take these issues on at the scale necessary to make a difference.
So, we can continue to “wait on the state” to solve our problems or Eagle County can take control of its own destiny when it comes to taking care of our children and our teachers.
More on that at a later date. For now, we are planning for the worst.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.