DENVER – The Colorado Senate on Tuesday approved the School Finance Act, which aims to implement a $1 billion plus statewide tax increase to fund K-12 schools – but which some say shortchanges charter schools and does not ensure equitable public education financing. Tax monies would also be redistributed from upper income school districts to poorer rural and urban areas in the state under the legislation, which passed on a party-line vote.
The bill, sponsored by Democrat state Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder and Michael Johnson of Denver, was whispered to be in the works last fall after the passage of $1.1 billion in school bonds and mill levy hikes in school districts throughout Colorado.
According to the Colorado Education Association (CEA), perhaps the state’s strongest union, the goal was to add another $2.75 billion in public school coffers in 2013 – and to repeal the Tax Payers Bill of Rights (TABOR), the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23 in 2014.
The plan could still take shape, but for now Heath and Johnston are pushing Senate Bill 213, a measure that would revise the funding formula for public schools.
Voter approval would be required for the $1 billion statewide tax increase.
The bill, which passed the Senate on a party line vote Tuesday, moves to the House for consideration.
“Senate Bill 213 is tied to one, if not the largest, tax increases in Colorado’s history, and is being done so under the name of reform which is inaccurate,” said State Sen. Mark Scheffel (R-Parker).
“Everyone in the Senate wants to invest in the students of this state,” he added, “but reforms to improve education are not in this bill. There is no accountability for the additional money.”
Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) bristled at Scheffel’s remarks and declared, “Colorado legislators have passed the ‘toughest reform package in the country… We have done our duty.”
Senate Republicans lamented the bill’s formula which some say shortchanges charter schools.
“The charter school discrimination that happens in this bill is really disturbing when you look at (their) success,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley), who served 8 years on a school board and helped to establish a charter school, which his children now attend.
The proposed new formula under SB 213 applies what is called an “ability-to-pay” factor. Some districts would get their education funding stripped by millions due to the bill’s redistribution mechanism, and those funds would be detoured to lower-income school districts.
According to The Denver Post, the proposal would also add $70 million to teaching at-risk students and English language learners. The measure would also direct 80 percent more funding to educate students who are both at-risk and English learners.
Some oppose the measure because districts considered “more affluent” would then be pressured to raise their own property taxes to stay even, essentially coaxing them to either raise taxes in order to tap state matching funds, or don’t raise taxes and deal with lower levels of funding.
Steamboat Springs School District Finance Director Dale Mellor told Steamboat Today that the measure, if passed by voters, would force the district to seek between $2.2 million and $2.6 million in additional property taxes each year from voters to offset potential cuts in state funding.
“The state will be asking voters to come up with around $1 billion for education, and then our district is going to have to go back to our own voters and ask for more money,” Mellor said. “It’s almost like we’re double dipping here.”
Garfield School District Re-2, which encompasses schools in Rifle, Silt and New Castle could see a loss in state funding of more than $6 million per year, which local property taxpayers would be asked to make up.
The bill could throw Douglas County, where it may be difficult to raise taxes, directly in the boxing ring with school districts like Denver that have no problem raising taxes. If Douglas County is unable to get its voters to raise taxes, they would essentially lose state funds by letting the state allocate those monies to other districts.
Leslie Jorgensen contributed to this story