Steamboat educators still not on board with major school finance bill that is nearing governor’s desk
April 29, 2013
Steamboat Springs — The caucus that represents more than 100 rural school districts across the state is not backing the major school finance bill approved Monday by the Colorado House of Representatives.
Educators in Steamboat Springs also remain wary of the legislation.
Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, said Monday that while the proposed rewrite of the school finance formula would mean more funding for several of the caucus’s districts, it still would "leave some kids behind."
"We’re still not comfortable with it," Stephenson said Monday shortly before the bill passed the House. "Because this bill is not making all of our districts (financially) whole, we don’t feel it serves all of the interests of our students in our districts. … The Rural Caucus and I are still very much opposed and question the long-term sustainability of the proposed new formula and the plan to fund it."
The bill crafted by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, will recalculate the ratio of funding each district receives from the state and from local sources.
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It is dependent on the passage in the fall of an estimated $1.1 billion tax increase to support education, a tall order after the recent failure of Proposition 103 that sought an additional $2.9 billion in tax revenue for schools.
Educators in Steamboat welcome many aspects of the bill, including the provisions that would completely fund full-day kindergarten and allow districts to count students multiple times a year for funding purposes, a change that would allow them to receive funding for students who enroll after Oct. 1.
But district officials said as recently as last week they still are concerned by many aspects of the bill, including its long-term sustainability and a provision that would send funding for its English language learner program directly to building principals instead of going through the normal budgeting process and the school board.
"At this point, I personally oppose this bill," Steamboat School Board President Brian Kelly said Monday afternoon. "We haven’t taken a vote on this as a whole board at this point, but I personally think there are too many unanswered questions."
Kelly said he specifically was concerned about the quick pace at which the complex, 200-page bill is being pushed through the legislature, and predicted the formula rewrite could have many unintended consequences in the coming years.
School Board member Jim Kissane also remains wary of the legislation.
He said Monday he was opposed to the bill a week and a half ago, but he needed to read the amendments added by the House before he judges it this week.
The bill has changed dramatically since it first was introduced by Johnston in March.
The legislation originally called for about 24 districts in the state, including Steamboat, that have high property values and high median incomes to consider asking voters to increase the amount of funding they provide through property taxes.
But a flurry of amendments quickly erased Steamboat’s potential of losing millions of dollars if local voters didn’t increase their financial support.
More recently, district officials worried the bill would force Steamboat's public school system 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.
But that concern was alleviated last week by a new amendment to the bill.
Like Johnston, Stephenson believes schools in the state are underfunded.
Although she is concerned by some aspects of the current legislation, she praises legislators for attempting to rework the formula to benefit more students.
"I think that Sen. Johnston and Sen. (Rollie) Heath have done a remarkable job in trying to look at school finance in a different way and coming up with something they believe will help more students, but unfortunately I think when you get down to the policy level, we’ve got more politics than policy in this bill," Stephenson said.
The Denver Post reported the bill was passed in the Democratic-controlled House by a 37-28 party-line vote, and its passage was preceded last week by some "partisan bickering."
According to the Post, Johnston said after the vote that all of the amendments and deliberations over the bill made it stronger.
Although district officials in Steamboat have not expressed support for the bill, it does have the backing of school district leaders in Hayden and South Routt.
It could not be immediately determined Monday night whether Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat, joined fellow Democrats in voting in favor of the bill.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com