Major school finance bill a mixed bag for Routt County educators | SteamboatToday.com

Major school finance bill a mixed bag for Routt County educators

— As educators in the Steamboat Springs School District continue to greet with apprehension a school finance bill unveiled this week in Denver, the leaders of Routt County’s other two public school districts are much more optimistic about the legislation.

"It would be a huge benefit for us," South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader said about state Sen. Mike Johnston's proposed changes to the finance formula that could increase South Routt's share of state funding by hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It would definitely put us in a better position with our budgets."

Mader added that the district still is suffering from budget cuts and has staff and capital needs.

And in Hayden, the bill could mean an infusion of state funding before the expiration of an existing mill levy override that nets the school district about $324,000 annually.

"We’re pleased with anything that would provide more money for education," Hayden Superintendent Mike Luppes said. "It sounds like (this bill) would offer a nice increase in funding for our district."

Johnston, D-Denver, on Monday released the 144-page draft of his bill that will seek major changes to how schools in the state are funded.

Although Johnston’s bill aims to increase state funding to a vast majority of districts across the state, it could spur the Steamboat Springs School District, and more than 20 other districts with higher median incomes and property values, to seek more funding from local taxpayers to offset a reduction in state funding.

A financial analysis of an early draft of the bill showed it could cut Steamboat’s portion of state funding by $2.2 million.

Johnston’s Chief of Staff Damion LeeNatali said Thursday night that the financial runs were preliminary and that the official estimates of the bill’s financial impact on each of the state’s 178 school district’s soon will be released.

The senator told the Steamboat Today earlier this month that his bill aims to fix a funding formula that allows some school districts in the state with very high property values and median incomes but low mills to receive a significantly higher amount of state funding than other communities that are taxing themselves at a higher rate but receiving far less from the state.

Districts wouldn’t lose any state funding under the new formula until 2020, according to the draft bill.

"I applaud Sen. Johnston and his commitment to this bill, but I still have a number of questions and concerns about where these policies will lead," Colorado Rural Schools Caucus Executive Director Paula Stephenson said Thursday.

She told the Steamboat Springs School Board earlier this month that she wouldn’t support a piece of legislation that negatively impacted any one of the more than 100 rural districts she represents.

Although some aspects of Johnston’s bill concern educators here in Steamboat, there are pieces of his legislation that earn widespread praise in Routt County.

The senator’s push to provide more state funding for full-day kindergarten programs is a welcome proposal, especially in Steamboat, where parents have had to pay tuition or seek scholarships for the service.

And the bill also will look to revamp how districts report students numbers for funding purposes. Instead of having students counted only Oct. 1, Johnston is proposing averaging the count data from four days in a school year. That would allow districts to receive funding for students who arrive after the count date in the fall.

"This version is probably better than the first one we were looking at, but it still needs some work," Steamboat School Board President Brian Kelly said Thursday about the draft of the bill released Monday.

If the bill passes, it wouldn’t kick in unless voters in Colorado approve additional funding for education, a feat Luppes and other educators here acknowledge will be a challenge after the overwhelming failure of the last proposed statewide tax increase for education.

Luppes added that it was too early to get too excited by the bill and its proposed changes or to get too pessimistic.

"Obviously, there’s a long way to go with it, including a public vote on increasing taxes," he said.

Johnston will hold a public forum on the bill next week in Denver. Community members can read the bill and offer feedback to Johnston at http://www.mikejohnston.org.

Stephenson said she expects the bill will be introduced as early as next week in the state Senate with a targeted passage in mid-March.

The Denver Post reported Monday that if the bill passes, changes to the formula would take effect in the 2015-16 school year.

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