Strawberry Park Elementary School students, from left, Yoalli Loya, Veronica Chavez, Evelyn Tarango and Marina Chavez wave and gesture to classmates Wednesday from their school bus. Some last-minute amendments to a major school finance bill has improved the Steamboat Springs School District's financial outlook.

Photo by Scott Franz

Strawberry Park Elementary School students, from left, Yoalli Loya, Veronica Chavez, Evelyn Tarango and Marina Chavez wave and gesture to classmates Wednesday from their school bus. Some last-minute amendments to a major school finance bill has improved the Steamboat Springs School District's financial outlook.

Amendments improve Steamboat Springs School District's outlook on major school finance overhaul

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— A flurry of amendments to the major school finance bill introduced Tuesday at the state Capitol has Steamboat Springs School District officials breathing a little easier.

For much of the past month, the district was anticipating a potential $2.6 milllion cut in state funding under Sen. Mike Johnston's push to overhaul the school finance formula that dictates how much funding each of the state’s public school systems receive.

Steamboat was one of 24 school districts that would have had to either seek a property tax increase from their voters within five years or start to lose the millions of dollars from the state.

Johnston, D-Denver, said the two dozen districts, all of which have high assessed property values and median incomes, could afford to get more of their funding locally to help free up more state money for other districts.

But as he introduced the bill Tuesday to an audience of hundreds of educators, the senator walked back that proposal as he added two amendments to the bill that, if passed, would ensure Steamboat and the other districts on the list wouldn't face the type of funding cuts originally proposed.

Instead, districts like Steamboat would experience an infusion of state funding and hold on to most of the gains after a new minimum level of funding was established for all Colorado school districts.

“It's a step in the right direction, and I appreciate he's working with us like this,” Steamboat Springs School District Finance Director Dale Mellor said Wednesday. “But we're still kind of holding our breath until we see the exact language of the amendment.”

The changes to Senate Bill 213 came after Steamboat and the other districts that would have been most impacted by the legislation expressed concern to Johnston and Sen. Rollie Heath, the bill's co-sponsor.

Mellor and Steamboat Springs Superintendent Brad Meeks on Sunday evening had a one-hour phone conference with the two legislators.

But despite the new amendments and their potential to help Steamboat and other districts avoid funding cuts, Mellor and Meeks still have a number of concerns about Johnston's legislation.

Some of those concerns include the long-term sustainability of the new funding formula and the bill's aim to send state funding for English language learner programs directly to the schools, instead of through the district's budget process.

On Tuesday, Meeks sent the Senate's education committee a letter urging it to delay a vote on Johnston's complex, 174-page proposal.

“We would encourage you to delay approving this bill until it can be better understood by those of us in the field that will need to execute it if it passes,” Meeks wrote. “Another option is to possibly look at other less complex solutions that will increase school funding.”

Meeks said Wednesday that it's what the district “doesn't know yet about the bill” that still has him concerned.

“Something of this magnitude is going to change the way schools are funded for the next generation,” he said. “We need to make sure we get it right.”

Mellor traveled to Denver on Tuesday to hear some of the more than nine hours of testimony on the bill.

South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader was one of many educators to testify in support of the legislation.

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.

Educators already recognize it's a tall order considering the last statewide ballot initiative seeking a tax increase for public education failed miserably.

The Senate's education committee spent Wednesday talking about the amendments but again pushed a vote on the entire bill to Thursday.

In addition to increasing state funding for all districts across the state, Johnston's 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.

According to a financial analysis of the bill released this month, Steamboat Springs would receive $485 more per enrolled student starting in the 2015-16 school year if the bill goes into effect; Hayden would receive $405 more per student; South Routt would gain $583 per student; and Moffat County would see the largest local increase with $1,264 more per student.

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

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