School Views: How our state education funding works
This year, Colorado has seen an increase in property valuations, with some counties averaging increases of over 50%. This is especially true for property owners in the High Country. While this does affect a property owner’s tax obligation, it does not directly equate to increased funding for our K-12 public schools because of how our state funds education. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Our funding model is broken, and until that changes our schools will continue to be underfunded.
Colorado is consistently near the bottom when it comes to state rankings in Teacher Wage Competitiveness. Colorado is 45th in percent of taxable resources spent on education. And Colorado spends about $2,000 less per pupil annually than the national average. In a district of our size, that equates to roughly $13 million dollars less being spent on students every year. That is a lot of money that could go toward recruitment and retention of staff, increased safety measures, facility improvements, more diverse academic programming, housing efforts and more needs of school districts. Our students deserve a greater commitment to their education.
Eagle County residents were recently sent a mailer that inaccurately conveyed that one full-time equivalent’s compensation is over $95,000, insinuating that this is our average teachers’ pay. This is false. Benefits account for roughly 40% of that compensation, making that number appear larger than the actual amount deposited in staff banking accounts.
Removing benefits from that number leaves gross pay at $57,000 and our first-year salary for licensed educators starts at $50,500. We recently got to this number through our negotiation process to keep our compensation competitive. My goal has been to stay within the top 10 of 178 school districts in the state for starting salary, but we were quickly surpassed as other districts outpaced us with increases, and we now sit at 15th.
It’s important to recognize that teachers don’t choose their careers for the financial windfall that awaits them, but rather for their love of educating our youth and providing an essential need in the community. However, they need to be able to afford to live here in order to serve our community. It is our duty to show them our support by fighting for higher salaries, safe schools and quality classrooms for them and their students. We endeavor to support these goals at both the state and local levels.
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The current state funding model is designed so that when property taxes jump, the state pulls back its funding to our schools. In other words, as the state gets more money from property taxes, it gives us less. The funding model is also affected by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. This 1992 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution sets a limit on government spending in relation to inflation and population growth and equates to a refund to all taxpayers in Colorado if funds are not spent. So again, while assessed values increase, that doesn’t equate to greater funding for our schools because when we contribute more locally, the state contributes less.
The current funding mess came about in 2009 after “The Great Recession,” when state lawmakers created the Budget Stabilization Factor. The BS Factor states that the government could siphon funds from education and utilize it in other ways depending on inflation and tax valuations. This essentially caps the amount of money school districts have to hire and retain staff and improve safety measures and keeps Colorado ranked near the bottom of educational funding across the country.
In my last column, I shared how many districts have addressed recruiting challenges by implementing a four-day school week. The Colorado Department of Education even produces a manual for how to do it. Additionally, districts that do implement four-day weeks have to request a waiver to drop below the 160 minimum contact days required by the state.
I recently read something claiming Eagle County School District’s 168 contact days were the least in the state — again, this is false. For most districts, the four-day week produces little in terms of cost savings, rather it’s a selling point to compete in the hiring market. We should be appalled and embarrassed that Colorado leads the country in reducing the amount of time kids spend in school.
I am proud that Eagle County School District is committed to serving students following the traditional five-day school week. We will continue to fight the shortened week trend as we prioritize in-person instruction to foster students to have an enthusiasm for learning, creative minds, compassion for others and the courage to pursue their dreams.
To reach the national average for per-pupil spending, Colorado would require at least $2 billion in additional revenue for K-12. That’s a big number, but we can’t expect to address the problem if we’re scared to talk about what it takes to fix it. Local ballot measures can help, but the root of the problem lies in the legislation. Until there are changes at the state level, Eagle County School District will continue to fight an uphill battle. This is a topic I am passionate about, and am available to discuss and answer any questions you may have.
Thank you for taking the time to educate yourself on the intricacies of this issue and understand that increased assessed values on properties do not create a windfall in monies received by our district or any other district across the state.
Philip Qualman is the superintendent of Eagle County School District. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.