Tax threat a one-time deal?

District officials optimistic education funding safe for now

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Steamboat Springs School District officials are optimistic that the city's half-cent sales tax for education is safe for the near future.

Steamboat Springs School Board President Paula Stephenson said she has talked to state education lobbyists who have indicated that legislative efforts to rescind the tax are unlikely.

Stephenson met with Jane Urschel, associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards and its chief lobbyist. While discussing the upcoming legislative session, Urschel told Stephenson it was unlikely legislators would again try to prevent school districts from capitalizing on alternative sources of revenue as they did last spring in a direct attack on the Steamboat tax.

"I'd be very, very surprised if this came back," Urschel said, referring to a provision in the first draft of this year's school finance bill that would have banned all 178 Colorado school districts from accepting revenue from other governmental entities, such as counties and cities.

Lawmakers of both political parties quickly were convinced of the ill consequences such a provision would have across the state, Urschel said.

The one-sentence provision, drafted by Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, was eliminated through an amendment proposed by Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. Fellow lawmakers approved White's amended version of the bill, and the threat was eliminated, but not before a contingent of school district and Education Fund Board officials traveled to Denver to lobby against King's provision.

Some within the Steamboat education community think King's provision was retaliation for the district's refusal to accept a Montessori charter school application. King has flatly denied those claims, arguing that his provision was a legitimate attempt to make sure the state's school districts are funded fairly and equitably.

The realization that the half-cent sales tax was vulnerable to legislative action motivated School Board and Fund Board members to rethink the setup and procedures of the nonprofit group that's responsible for allocating nearly $2 million in annual sales tax revenue to the district.

Some on the Fund Board have suggested measures such as removing School Board members from the 13-person group and taking steps to separate the groups' accounting.

Stephenson said she thinks the city, school district and Fund Board should continue to look at ways to refine the Fund Board system.

Steamboat voters created the Education Fund in 1993 when they approved a ballot measure authorizing a half-cent sales tax, for which the revenue is spent on education. Voters have twice extended the life of the tax. It is thought to be the only city sales tax of its kind in the state.

It's the responsibility of the Education Fund Board and its three commissions to propose and approve spending requests. The School Board, however, has the ultimate say in whether to accept Fund Board donations.

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