Groups seek ballot measure to sddress school funding issue

Responding to the effects of state budget cuts on Colorado public schools, an organization called the Great Futures Colorado Coalition wants a 2011 statewide ballot measure to raise funds for schools.

A Colorado school finance project report indicates that school districts throughout the state are resorting to cost-cutting measures that will affect students and families. According to the report, those effects include increased class sizes, shorter school years, transportation and technology fees, deferred textbook purchases, reduced music and physical education programs and four-day school weeks for some districts.

“The report makes clear that kids throughout Colorado will be returning to more crowded classrooms, for fewer days, and with narrower curriculum,” said Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, a member of the Great Futures coalition. “With the real threat of even greater cuts to K-12 and higher ed looming for the next two years, public education supporters recognize this crisis will only deepen until the voters are given the opportunity to fix it.”

During budget discussions in the spring, the Mesa County School District 51 Board considered changes as drastic as the four-day week. While the board decided against such a move, the board offered early retirement packages for teachers, reducing the district payroll.

Cuts at the state level could mean funding per student will be reduced this year. Last year, District 51 received about $6,600 per student, placing the district near the bottom of the list in per-student payments.

The formula that determines compensation has been a bone of contention for years among educators in Mesa County. Because District 51 is an averaged-sized district, it receives less per student than large districts that offer more overall services as well as small districts with a high cost per student because of low student populations. The state funding formula also funnels less money to districts in counties with lower costs of living — which traditionally fits the Mesa County profile, although the local cost of living index is now about the same as the national average.

“We need to take a serious look at how schools are funded,” said Steve Schultz, superintendent for District 51. “It’s so complicated for people to understand.”

While Mesa County residents might complain about the level of funding from the state, Schultz said local property taxes fund less than a third of the $6,600 per-student fee. By contrast, residents in Aspen foot the entire per-student fee for their students.

Schultz is not joining the call for a funding measure on next year’s ballot partly because many families are struggling to pay bills as it is during the economic downturn. But Schultz does join the cry for revisions in state laws that can work against one another.

Constitutional Amendment 23 mandates that public school funding be increased each year even as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment prohibits government from increasing overall spending levels by more than an amount that’s calculated by combining the population growth rate and the increase in the Consumer Price Index in the Denver-Boulder area.

There’s also the Gallagher Amendment, which requires business owners to pay more combined property taxes than homeowners in Colorado.

Meanwhile, the Great Futures coalition formed in January pushes on with its discussion of a ballot measure. The coalition called on the State Legislature to refer a measure to the ballot in November of this year to provide a mechanism for preventing deeper cuts for education, but legislation failed.

“We cannot stand idly by as cuts grow deeper every year,” said Lynn Huizing, president of Colorado PTA, a member of the Great Futures coalition. “Our constituents understand that our children can’t wait any longer for us to get our priorities straight and live our values.”