From the Statehouse

Lots of ways to raise your taxes

The 24 proposed ballot measures that would raise state income taxes to boost funding for K-12 education suggest a wide and bewildering variety of ways to do that.

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.Four of the proposals would keep the state’s current flat tax system but raise the rate to 5.35 percent from the current 4.63 percent. The other 20 plans would create progressive income taxes with either two tiers or five. Those suggest larger percentage increases in higher income brackets.

Some of the measures would tinker with existing constitutional structures, including Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in base K-12 funding.

Despite the variations, most of the proposed constitutional amendments would arrive at about the same destination – an increase of around $1 billion in new revenue. All new revenue would be earmarked for education and couldn’t be spent on other programs. The state currently collects about $5.2 billion a year from individual income taxes.

Proposal texts
  • Find links to proposal texts on this page. Colorado Forum proposals are numbers 13-28; Great Education Colorado measures are 30-37.

The proposals are driven by a coalition of education, civic and business groups as part of a campaign to both modernize the state’s school funding formula and also increase revenue for K-12 schools. The measure that would change the formula, Senate Bill 13-213, is working its way through the Senate. (See this EdNews story for the bill’s current status.)

But because the state constitution forbids the legislature from raising taxes itself, the additional revenues required by SB 13-213 would have to be approved by voters. (If the bill passes but voters reject additional taxes the new formula wouldn’t go into effect.)

Sixteen of the tax increases are proposed by Colorado Forum, a group of business and civic leaders that works on constitutional and fiscal reform. The other eight are proposed by Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for increased school funding. Both are part of a larger coalition called the School Finance Partnership, which has been working on school reform and funding since the spring of 2011.

“We are very hopeful we can get something done” to improve school support, said Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum.

Why were so many plans filed?

Trying to amend the state constitution is a tricky legal process dictated by complicated rules governing the scope and wording of proposed ballot measures. So groups sometimes file multiple versions so they have backups in case one version is successfully challenged. (Disputes over ballot measures periodically end up before the Colorado Supreme Court.)

Drafting ballot measures also is a political process, and different versions often are filed to acknowledge the priorities of individual interest groups within a coalition and to create alternatives whose potential popularity can be tested in public opinion surveys and focus groups. A key reason why all the measures would generate about $1 billion in revenue is because previous polling and focus groups indicated that’s about the most the public would support.

Lisa Weil
Lisa Weil

“We wanted to make sure there are as many options as possible,” said Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education.

Proposals had to be filed by March 22 to be considered for the November 2013 ballot, so Colorado Forum and Great Education covered their bets by filing multiple versions. (The two groups are cooperating, not competing in the effort.)

“We are very appreciative of everything that Colorado Forum is doing,” Weil said. “We are looking forward to working with them.”

After the measures undergo multiple reviews that begin Thursday and run through late April, a single measure is expected to be chosen for submission to voters. Proponents will have to gather at least 86,105 required signatures by Aug. 5.

“People are chomping at the bit to work on an increase for education,” said Liane Morrison, executive director of Great Education.

What the proposals would do

How it all works

  • See the box below for a more detailed explanation of how the proposals would change current parts of the constitution

In addition to various tax rates, the 24 plans offer different mechanisms for using the additional revenue.

The 16 Colorado Forum plans sort into four groups. Every proposal would raise taxes and also create what’s called the Education Achievement Fund, which would receive the new revenues and be used to fund various elements of the SB 13-213 formula. Here are the other features of the four groups:

  • In addition to raising taxes, a first group also would earmark 43 percent of the state general fund every year for K-12 education and also change another section of the constitution that currently acts to drive down school district property tax collections.
  • A second group would raise taxes and stabilize district property tax collections.
  • A third group would raise taxes and include the 43 percent earmarking of the general fund for schools.
  • The fourth group would just raise taxes and put the additional revenue in the achievement fund.

Revenue raised by the four plans would range from about $811 million to just over $1 billion, Klapper said, although she cautioned those estimates might be low. (Legislative staff will calculate estimated revenues for each proposal during the review process.)

In addition to different tax rates, the main variation among the eight Great Education plans is that some would give education an added boost. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights section of the constitution requires that certain surplus revenues be refunded to taxpayers. (State revenues haven’t grown enough in recent years to trigger that.) Some versions of the proposals would instead transfer such surpluses to K-12 spending.

The Great Education proposals would use the existing State Education Fund as the holding account for new education revenue.

And there are more proposals

Three other proposals related to SB 13-213 and school funding also have been filed.

One proposes putting the original text of SB 13-213 to the voters as a change to state law. It was filed by Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Tamara Ward, CEO of Colorado Concern, a group of business executives.

Brough said last week, “Our rationale for filing the title was to protect our ability to ensure SB 213 is preserved … if the bill doesn’t pass or changes significantly” in the legislature. “Our title was filed to address … the reality that the fate of SB 213 at the Capitol is very uncertain. If SB 213 passes and is signed by the governor our title is not needed. If none of the tax increases go forward in 2013, our ballot title is not needed.”

And two measures were filed by tea party activist Steve Dorman. One would increase income taxes by only .0001 percent to fund SB 13-213, and one would raise state sales taxes by 10 percent to fund teacher pensions.

Education & the constitution

The state constitution currently includes three elements that affect education funding.

Amendment 23 – This provision requires that base K-12 funding increase by enrollment growth and inflation every year. Additional school funding isn’t covered by that requirement, and the legislature actually has cut school funding in recent years because of tight state revenues. It’s estimated that school support is about $1 billion below what it would have been without those cuts.

Some of the Colorado Forum proposals would repeal the A23 multiplier and replace it with a requirement that 43 percent of the state general fund be devoted to K-12 every year.

Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) – This part of the constitution sets limits on state revenue and spending increases and requires voter approval of new taxes. Several of the proposals would create significant exemptions from TABOR for education spending.

Gallagher Amendment – This section was intended to set ratios between business and residential property taxes. In combination with TABOR, which was passed later, it’s had the effect of driving down residential assessment rates and shifting a higher percentage of school costs to the state. Some of the Colorado Forum proposals include a provision that would create a floor below which residential assessment rates couldn’t drop.

And … the single subject rule – An unavoidable hurdle for ballot measure proponents is what’s called the “single subject rule,” which limits the content of a measure and requires the full content be listed in a measure’s title. More than one past measure has fallen afoul of this rule.

Proponents of the school tax measure believe their single subject is “school finance” and that they can pass the test. “We’re hopeful it will fall under that single subject,” said Trey Rogers, a lawyer who is working with proponents.

Sticking with a single subject is the reason why proponents want to tinker with the Gallagher Amendment only as it applies to school taxes. The fluctuation of property taxes for counties, cities and special districts wouldn’t be changed.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”