Students board a long line of buses last month at Steamboat Springs Middle School. The Steamboat School Board is considering asking voters here in the fall to approve a property tax increase to support local schools.

Photo by Scott Franz

Students board a long line of buses last month at Steamboat Springs Middle School. The Steamboat School Board is considering asking voters here in the fall to approve a property tax increase to support local schools.

Steamboat Springs School Board pondering a mill levy override in response to major school finance bill

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— Some members of the Steamboat Springs School Board are considering whether to ask voters to approve a property tax increase this fall.

The issue surfaced Monday night as the board learned more about the potential implications of the major school finance bill working its way through the state legislature.

While the school district's financial outlook under Sen. Mike Johnston's bill has improved since it was introduced last month, the Steamboat district anticipates the legislation could make future bids for mill levy overrides much more difficult.

If the bill passes, district officials say Steamboat’s public school system would be forced to first direct millions of dollars in any future gains in local property tax revenue to the state before the district could go back to voters for any additional funding that would specifically benefit Steamboat schools.

“I personally think the odds of this community backfilling $3 million to $5 million of the state's portion of funding (to allow for future mill levy overrides) are not good,” board President Brian Kelly said after the meeting.

Funding to support full-day kindergarten or to boost the cost-of-living adjustment given to staff to boost their salaries are two of the ideas the board has floated as possible targets of a mill levy override.

Members said there are other possibilities, including school programs.

The board's reasoning for possibly seeking a property tax increase this fall would be to secure additional funding from locals before the legislation could take effect and mandate that the district first backfill part of the state's share of funding with a future property tax increase.

Johnston's bill aims to dramatically change how schools in the state are funded. In addition to increasing state funding for districts across the state, his bill proposes that the state completely fund full-day kindergarten, provide new funding for at-risk districts to extend their school year, and boost funding for special education students.

The overhaul of the finance formula wouldn't go into effect unless Colorado voters this year approve a yet-to-be-defined tax increase Johnston has projected will total about $1 billion.

Amendments to the bill approved last week helped the Steamboat Springs School District and 23 others with high assessed property values avoid the potential of being hurt financially if they did not seek local mill levy overrides.

But a large portion of future property tax increases here would first have to go to the state's coffers.

Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus and a former Steamboat Springs School Board member, briefed the board on the latest implications of the legislation Monday. She said there still are many moving parts and unknowns about the bill.

The latest version “puts us into more of a winning category, and we stand to gain money,” Stephenson said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the bill.”

Meanwhile, Johnston's bill continues to progress through the legislature.

The Denver Post reported Monday the bill won initial approval from the state Senate on a party line 20-15 vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulpher Springs, told the Post it was premature to vote on the bill without first knowing the details of the statewide tax increase that would be used to fund it.

“How can we be asked to vote on this bill without knowing what specific tax measure will be used to support this bill?” Baumgardner asked.

School Board members here said with so many unknowns and moving parts, they were having trouble formulating a letter either supporting or opposing the effort. They plan to discuss the potential of a mill levy override at a meeting later this month.

They also plan to better identify what their funding would look like with and without the passage of the legislation because the projections have changed since the bill was first drafted.

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

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