HomeNews In split vote, RE1J school board agrees to support Amendment 66
In split vote, RE1J school board agrees to support Amendment 66
Written by Seth Mensing
Wednesday, 09 October 2013
November initiative could steer $1.3 million to local schools
Without hesitation, each member of the Gunnison Watershed School Board entered his or her vote on a resolution supporting the November ballot initiative Amendment 66, which would raise more than $950 million for state education funding through an increase in personal income tax and bring an additional $1.3 million to the district. But not everyone agreed.
While the superintendent and the business manager supported the resolution, and three of the board members voted in favor it, board member Don Hagar said no. State education funding has taken a dramatic hit over the last five years and previous attempts to prop it up have failed. According to Crested Butte’s State Representative Millie Hamner, herself a former superintendent of schools, a major part of the problem is the law known as the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which requires the state to return excess tax revenue to the people. Because the state was being forced to return revenue that wasn’t budgeted to be spent, Governor Bill Owens decided the state should take in less money, lowering the income tax to its current 4.63 percent. Amendment 66, which is the funding portion of Senate Bill 262, would raise income tax rates to their previous level of 5 percent for federally taxable income up to $75,000 and 5.9 percent on income beyond that. The estimated $1 billion in revenue would then be directed toward schools. For someone making the state’s median income of $57,000, the additional tax would amount to about $133 a year. Hamner says the current school funding formula provides equitable funding for districts across the state, which sounds like a good idea. But as economic troubles at the state started stripping funds from education, some districts with higher property values have been able to pass mill levy overrides to maintain funding at a level some smaller districts cannot afford. Under the new bill, there would be a new weighting system to determine how state funds would be divvied up among the schools, with a greater financial commitment to schools with high proportions of English language learners and free and reduced meals, as well as small districts where it simply costs more to educate students. Some preschool programs and full-day kindergarten would also be funded. After a presentation detailing the apparent benefits the proposed new law would have for education on a state and local level from business district manager Stephanie Juneau, superintendent Doug Tredway praised the proposed new law as an opportunity to provide a high quality education for kids across the state, from Aspen to the San Luis Valley. “Because of the TABOR law, we’re setting up a situation where there are schools that have more money and their students have access to a better education system and more funding,” Tredway said. “What that’s creating is a situation of haves and have-nots. For example, there’s a school district in the San Luis Valley and the property value of the entire school district doesn’t equal the value of this one piece of property in Aspen. So even if they did pass a mill levy, a high mill levy even, they would never be able to generate the same funds.” By returning all of the state’s schools to a base level of funding, the hope is that the state could provide some equality in education and school districts could still increase their mill levies to fund additional improvements or programs, Tredway said. Still, board member Don Hagar said he could not support the resolution, given what he sees as underdeveloped natural gas and mineral resources in the county and a failure on the county government’s part to encourage more development and direct that money toward the schools. “I see the county denying building permits, denying mineral extraction permits, things that could increase the revenue the county gets. We should be producing oil and gas and there’s a part of the county that feels that’s dirty and that we should be able to use it and but not have to produce it,” Hagar said. “I see a little hypocrisy on the county’s part.” Hagar blamed “environmentalists” for closing mines and capping wells and charged that they be the ones to make up for the lost revenue, not taxpayers. In fact, the County has never denied a permit requested by the extractive industries, only ever applyied its own mitigation measures to the permit. “I can’t even think of a building permit that’s been denied,” assistant director of community development Neal Starkebaum says. And the County does provide the school district with severance tax dollars from coal and natural gas development, as mandated by the state legislature. But the program of sharing that revenue, known as Secure Rural Schools, has jumped around since its inception, requiring schools get 5 percent of the revenue one year, then 25 percent and then 50 percent of the revenue a few years later. Now the program has outlived its legislative mandate and needs to be reauthorized every year for the schools to get anything. Last year, largely from natural gas and coal development in the North Fork Valley, the district got $561,000. This year, the program was reauthorized but the future of the funding will continue to rely on reauthorization by the legislature. Board member Bill Powell pointed out that—while he isn’t as familiar with the extractive industries—the business community at large wants, needs and has come to expect an educated work force. That, Powell said, requires that the schools receive adequate funding. And according to the formula, if Amendment 66 passes, REIJ schools will get about $1.3 million in additional funding, or more than twice what the current level of mineral development is generating. At the same time, the district has lost more than $2 million in state funding since 2008 and Juneau says that while the new formula would be a step in the right direction, it still wouldn’t meet the district’s financial needs on its own. Instead she told the board that Amendment 66 leaves part of the school funding obligation to the district’s property owners. A PowerPoint presentation provided by the Colorado Department of Education in support of the Amendment says, “By not passing a ballot initiative to increase Total Program mills, a district may not realize the full benefits of the program.” One concern is that if voters approve a personal income tax increase with Amendment 66, there might be less support for a mill levy override to fully fund the schools in coming years. Then the district would be stuck with less funding indefinitely. However Hamner points out, an advantage to having the Senate education bill get funding through a constitutional amendment would be requiring a constitutional amendment to change the formula, hopefully securing that funding for the future, without running the risk of losing it to politics. Voters could always end a mill levy override. They could also turn down Amendment 66, which will be on the ballot being mailed to all county voters October 15. For more information about Amendment 66 from a “pro” perspective, visit coloradocommits.com.