Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston speaks with Routt County superintendents and other education officials Wednesday at a work session in Oak Creek. Johnston said he was working on a potential 2013 ballot measure aimed at securing more revenue for schools.

Photo by Scott Franz

Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston speaks with Routt County superintendents and other education officials Wednesday at a work session in Oak Creek. Johnston said he was working on a potential 2013 ballot measure aimed at securing more revenue for schools.

State senator discusses push for funding with Routt County superintendents

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— Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston told Routt County's three superintendents Wednesday in Oak Creek that they should expect next year to see a push to get voters to approve increased education funding.

The senator added that a lot can be learned from the failure of the statewide ballot initiative in 2011 that sought to raise taxes to provide an additional $2.9 billion for schools in Colorado.

“Going to the voters with a blank check for K-12 education is a hard proposition to win,” Johnston said about the unsuccessful Proposition 103 at the start of a two-hour work session with Northwest Colorado superintendents. The meeting focused on the senator's latest efforts to help create a 2013 ballot initiative to raise education revenue by as much as $1 billion.

On the heels of several years of budget cuts that have forced them to scale back school programs and largely avoid adding new teaching positions, the superintendents here were anxious to learn about the latest push to bolster education funding in the state, which ranks 48th in the nation in that category of funding.

The new funding push would follow the failure of Proposition 103, a proposed tax increase that aimed to raise an estimated $2.9 billion for preschools, K-12 schools and public colleges and universities in the state by increasing individual and corporate tax rates along with sales and use taxes.

Although it earned strong support from the Steamboat and South Routt school boards, the tax hikes proved too much for voters to stomach at a time when employment in the state hovered at about 9 percent.

It was opposed in November 2011 by 60 percent of Routt County voters and 64 percent of voters statewide.

Johnston said Wednesday that he envisions a 2013 statewide ballot measure to boost education funding more clearly would outline what the revenue would be used for and that its passage also would be dependent on proposed changes to the finance formula the state uses to distribute revenue to school districts.

“The problem here is we need to both increase revenue for districts and make it more efficient for districts to spend that revenue,” Johnston said, adding one of his priorities is to win the support of business leaders and the governor.

He spent much of Thursday's meeting pitching several ideas to a panel of superintendents that included Steamboat's Brad Meeks, South Routt's Scott Mader and Hayden's Mike Luppes.

Johnston told them the changes to the finance formula he will consider proposing include switching from a single student count date Oct. 1 to a system that would have the state pull enrollment data electronically from districts throughout the year and adjust funding accordingly.

The idea was embraced by Mader and Meeks, who indicated such a system likely would be favorable for their districts as they tend to pick up students after the count date who aren't added to their funding totals.

Johnston also floated a funding formula used in Rhode Island that decides how much the state and local governments should contribute to school districts by factoring in residents' median incomes and the assessed valuation of property.

“It frees up dollars on the state side to support districts who cannot generate a whole lot more at the local level,” he said.

He added the state also could pursue using the additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten, a program the state funds only partially.

Following Wednesday's meeting, Mader said that he initially was leery of changes to the state's school finance act but that he was more optimistic about potential changes after meeting with Johnston.

The South Routt School District has had to cut an average of $250,000 from its budget for each of the past three school years. Mader said the district's future financial stability likely will depend on increased state revenue or the renewal of a mill levy override in the district.

“Right now, we're not able to do the things we want to do or need to do, but we're able to hold our own,” he said.

He said additional revenue could be used in the district to rehire a middle school administrator, add special education teachers and increase the base salary of teachers above the current level of $31,000.

“We're not going to be able to retain the best teachers” with that base salary, Mader said. “That's my big concern that could make me support Sen. Johnston's proposals.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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