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Vail Daily column: Pot taxes far from a windfall

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

Editor’s note: This column was written by Tammy H. Schiff, chief communications officer of Eagle County Schools.

On Monday, Colorado Public Radio had a story about school funding throughout the nation. It included a very sophisticated, interactive map created by NPR and Education Week to make it easy for anyone to look up national school funding statistics.

Some Colorado school districts — many on the Eastern Plains — spend upward of $20,000 per pupil per year. Others, mainly in the suburban areas of the Front Range, have less than $10,000 per year. In Colorado, the average district spends $9,120 per student, less than the nationwide average according to NPR.

With 6,723 students here in Eagle County Schools based on our October count figures, we receive $7,587 per pupil funding from the state, well below the national average of $11,841. Ouch!

Throughout the next three weeks, NPR will be doing a series of stories looking at school funding across the country, with the aim of explaining what happens when the country’s poorest students also attend its poorest schools. With a focus on the complicated situation in Colorado, CPR News will have a report next week on how the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights has affected school funding across Colorado.

People, especially those from out-of-state visiting our valley, often ask those of us working in public education, “Aren’t Colorado schools rolling in money collected from all those retail marijuana taxes?”

The short answer is, simply, “no.” But like so many things related to education funding … it’s complicated. Since NPR is focusing on the national scene, and CPR is taking on TABOR, I thought I’d dust off a little refresher on the marijuana tax subject, to round out the picture here in Colorado.

Retail marijuana is subject to the 2.9 percent state sales tax, any local sales taxes and an additional 10 percent state sales tax. In addition, there is a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales from growers to recreational marijuana retailers. It’s the excise tax that is earmarked for school construction capital expenses and is largely credited with swaying voters to approve Amendment 64 in 2012. There is an annual cap on the excise tax funds of $40 million, which has yet to be achieved. The other tax monies go into the state’s general fund and are to be spent on drug-abuse education, research, and substance abuse treatment – all worthy recipients.

As I see it, there are three major problems associated with marijuana taxes, the primary of which is the public’s understanding of how these funds are applied to bolster school funding. Since the money is restricted to school building construction or major repairs such as roofs and boilers, it cannot be directed to more systemic needs, such as improving teacher salaries, reducing class sizes or curriculum and instructional resource investments. It can’t help us add back programs for students that were eliminated or dramatically reduced during the massive funding cuts caused by the recession.

Second, it’s put into Building Excellent Schools Today, a state-level grant fund, and the money is distributed to selected schools and districts around the state. Here in Eagle County, the Eagle County Charter Academy building was largely constructed using a grant that was approved in 2009, long before the marijuana tax. To date, the grand total of marijuana dollars that have come to our community schools: $0.

Finally, while the marijuana taxes collected are increasing every year, there is still the $40 million annual cap on how much can be collected and distributed to consider. Don’t get me wrong, $40 million is a lot of money and a lot more than was being collected before the legalization of retail marijuana sales! But in the grand scheme of public education spending for both operational and capital expenses, it’s a relatively small amount. Forty million dollars is about enough to build two well-equipped elementary schools, or maybe one good sized middle school with some athletic fields. That’s it — for the whole state of Colorado! So while the marijuana taxes may do some good in one or two communities, we shouldn’t be billing it as pennies from heaven that are saving our schools from financial woes.

Take note that I’m not taking a professional position on the legalization of marijuana or making any judgments about it. Adult Coloradoans and visitors to our beautiful state are free to purchase and use marijuana products in accordance with state and local regulations.

But let’s not fool ourselves into believing this consumption is doing anything to solve our state’s chronic (pun intended) education budget woes or helping us to shake off the hangover (pun intended, again) effects of the recession.

Marijuana is a legal, regulated and taxed substance in our state that will build a school or two a year across the state. It is not the panacea to our state’s ongoing dysfunctional system of school funding. It’s that simple.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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