HomeNews RE1J school board to vote on mill levy override at next meeting
RE1J school board to vote on mill levy override at next meeting
Written by Toni Todd
Wednesday, 04 June 2014
District underfunded by state again this year
Gunnison RE1J school board members listened Monday evening as the mill levy committee laid out what they called an “unsustainable” scenario for the district going forward. They recommended a $2.5 million mill levy override to reverse the persistent backslide.
The district anticipates being underfunded by $1.9 million from the state for the 2014-15 school year, the latest in a succession of similar years, totaling a nearly $8 million shortfall since 2011. Program cuts, layoffs and wage freezes have done little but hold off the inevitable. This year’s budget works, said district business manager Stephanie Juneau, “because you, as a board, agreed to cut two teaching FTEs (Full Time Equivalent).” “We’ve been frozen as a district for six years,” said superintendent Doug Tredway at Monday night’s school board meeting. It’s the result of what’s called “the negative factor,” he said. “We hit the fiscal cliff in 2012. “Some people are saying this is the new normal,” he added. “We can’t live the new normal,” said mill levy committee member Kristi Hargrove. “It’s unsustainable.” The culprit is Amendment 23. Passed by the Colorado legislature in 2000, its original purpose was to reverse two decades of statewide budget cuts.
It mandates increases in per-pupil funding based on the rate of inflation. To determine how much each district receives, that base amount is run through a formula that accounts for variables such as poverty, growth, district size, local cost of living, and the number of at-risk students. These variables are referred to as “factors” within the amendment. In 2009, the legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 to mean that only the base amount was covered by the mandatory increases, not the factors. As the recession settled into 2009, the legislature employed a so-called “negative factor,” applying a negative dollar amount against any mandated increases. This allowed them to decide each year how much they want to spend on schools and then adjust the negative factor to meet that funding target and to effectively negate the mandate of Amendment 23. Hargrove explained that education statewide is “underfunded by $1 billion.” Colorado, she said, ranks 43rd in state funding for education nationwide. RE1J’s per-pupil funding is $6,990 for 2014-2015, the same since 2009, rather than the $8,048 Hargrove said we should receive. “The state takes what we collect [in taxes to support the school district] and backfills to that $6,990 amount,” Hargrove said. “The state has continually failed to resolve financing. The only way to get around that is a mill levy override.” “The state has been stingy with money but not with requirements,” added mill levy committee member Heidi Keck, referring to unfunded program mandates. She said the three most important elements in need of ongoing support in the district are infrastructure maintenance, class size and a strong curriculum. The committee recommended a mill levy override of 2.5. A second option would be a $1.9 million override, which would just compensate for the current shortfall in state funding. A third option would be to do nothing. “We need $1.75 million just for restoration of things we’ve cut,” said Hargrove. School board member Bill Powell asked and answered, “Do we want the status quo, which is steadily sliding backward, or do we move forward for our children? We take responsibility for our children and our community.” “Our kids only have one time to get it right,” added Hargrove. “They’re only in second grade once. If we fail them, they carry that forward through the rest of their lives.” Board member Marilyn Krill noted the number of other initiatives set for the ballot this fall. “Have you chatted about the PR campaign that’s needed to win the vote over those other initiatives?” she asked. Hargrove said they had discussed it. She suggested that, given voter support in Gunnison County for education in the past, that passing this would not be insurmountable. “This is a state-created problem,” said Powell. We’ve got to emphasize that.” One bright spot in Monday evening’s conversation was the return of summer school this year. “Last summer, we had no summer school and our test scores showed that,” said Tredway. This year, the budget allowed for $100,000 to re-open the program. “That money was gone quickly,” he said. That’s a great problem to have.” Demand was high, he said, and classes are full. The REIJ school board will approve its annual budget on June 16. At that time they will also vote on whether to ask voters for a mill levy override and for how much.