Colorado school superintendents launch own effort to reform school finance
Author: Marianne Goodland - February 7, 2018 - Updated: February 12, 2018
Superintendents and all but a handful of Colorado’s 178 public school districts spoke with a unified voice Wednesday to advocate for a legislative ballot measure they say will fix Colorado’s school finance funding formula.
The ballot measure is contained within House Bill 1232, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dave Young of Greeley in the House. Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose and Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood are the measure’s Senate sponsors.
More than two dozen superintendents from urban, rural and suburban school districts showed up at Denver’s Dora Moore Elementary School to publicly plead with the General Assembly to support the bill, which would also need voter approval in the fall.
The superintendents have been working for two years to come up with a new formula that could guide the financing of public education in Colorado in the future. They pointed out the school finance formula has been unchanged for close to 25 years.
When the current school finance formula was revised in 1994, voters had recently approved the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR); Amendment 23, which requires K-12 education be funded at the rate of inflation, was six years in the future. In the meantime, K-12 is underfunded by $828 million, the result of the 2008 recession. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed reducing that IOU by $110 million in the 2018-19 budget as well as another $30 million boost to rural schools, extending for a second year the extra dollars those districts got from the 2017 omnibus bill for rural Colorado.
Superintendents said they understand the bill comes at a time when funding for public education conflicts with other priorities, such as transportation. But Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the south Denver metro Englewood school district, said education also must be one of those priorities.
Schools all over the state are facing teacher shortages, in part due to low pay. Rubin noted that 95 percent of teachers in rural school districts don’t make enough to meet basic living costs. More than half of the school districts in the state have one or more schools on four-day school weeks due to budget cuts, and more are considering them, she said. And this in a state with a healthy and growing economy and a $1 billion budget surplus, she pointed out.
If voters approved a new school finance formula, K-12 would not initially require any additional state support, the group noted. That’s because the formula would not go into effect until the money is there to pay for the changes.
The formula calculates each school district’s total program funding, beginning with a statewide per-pupil amount. Additional dollars come in for student and district characteristics, such as gifted and talented, English language learners; students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty; special education and a cost of living factor. There’s also a size factor, based on those other characteristics, that would put extra money into smaller, rural districts.
The formula would hold harmless districts that could lose money under the change. One estimate said the proposed formula would cost the state an additional $1.8 billion.
Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain school district in Colorado Springs, acknowledged that the superintendents are not experts in legislation. “But given our collective knowledge and experience in administering the affairs of public school districts, we are uniquely equipped to develop a school finance formula that takes into account those requirements and today’s students.”
Cooper added that the current formula has done nothing for gifted and talented students or those who don’t speak English, and students who need special education services are funded far below the amount mandated through the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act.
For a special education student, for example, the current formula doesn’t cover the district’s actual costs for educating that student, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project. In the new formula, depending on the severity of need, the district would get the proper amount of money and funding would also adjusted based on the district’s size, sort of an economy of scale issue.
Colorado has long been lauded for its return on investment for education, but “efficiency is not the same as sufficiency,” Cooper said. “HB 1232 is the right bill at the right time.”
The superintendents acknowledged that an interim school finance committee has been working on a rewrite of the state funding formula since last summer, but claimed the bill and their efforts lighten the load for that committee, not compete with it. They presented their formula to that interim committee last month.
Several rural school superintendents also spoke about the urgency of a rewrite of the school finance formula for their districts. Don Rangel, who runs the Weld RE-1 district that serves Gilcrest, LaSalle and Platteville, said students in rural schools are expected to be as competitive as those who come from urban schools, but the current funding formula doesn’t make that possible. John McCleary of Holyoke in Phillips County said the funding formula proposed in HB 1232 is more transparent and will make sense to taxpayers, who he said have a right to understand what they’re paying for.
The funding formula is driven by the needs of a child and is simple to explain, said Rick Mondt of the Briggsdale district in Weld County. He explained that in the superintendents’ formula, money will follow the student from one district to another, especially if that student has special requirements, such as English language skills or gifted and talented programs. The current formula just assumes at some point everything will average out, dollar-wise, he said, rather than targeting specific students at a given point in their education.
The bill will require a two-thirds vote in each chamber to get to the ballot, a tall order, especially in the state Senate where transportation funding is the top priority for Senate Republicans. The superintendents’ group said they would not pursue a citizen-driven ballot initiative if HB 1232 doesn’t make it through the General Assembly. “We’ll be back,” Cooper said.
A new school finance formula could also come from the interim committee, but whether that will happen this session is unknown; some have predicted it could be a year before they come with a new formula.