Caught in the crosshairs

Colorado Senate Republicans say they don’t want to cut funding to school to pay for roads

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem.

School funding will not suffer at the expense of fixing the state’s troubled roads, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said Monday.

Holbert’s comments came after Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran last week suggested that could happen if lawmakers use money from existing revenue streams to meet the state’s infrastructure needs, this session’s No. 1 legislative priority.

Leaders in both parties have been working toward a way to find billions of dollars for the state’s roads. Republicans have not ruled out asking voters for more money, but they believe a portion should come the state’s budget.

If the Republicans get their way it could have a big impact on the bigger school funding picture. If that tax money is used for roads, the state likely will not have the means to close a longstanding gap in what schools should be getting under the state’s funding formula.

Holbert on Monday said Republicans believe there should be enough new revenue for schools and roads.

The state is required to increase funding to schools every year to keep up with population changes and inflation. Lawmakers have some discretion on money that exceeds that formula, which goes toward helping small districts and those with large at-risk populations.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, in a press conference with reporters Monday, said he didn’t find Duran’s comments surprising. But he stood by the GOP’s position that any compromise in transportation funding must come from existing funding streams.

“If it’s going to be a priority,” he said. “Let’s act like it’s a priority.”

Public schools use about 38 cents for every tax dollar in the portion of the state’s budget lawmakers have control over — by far the largest line item.

Funding to schools has increased during the last several years, but lawmakers have fallen short in closing a $813 million shortfall for education created during the Great Recession.

Some school leaders and observers fear the state might not be able to keep funding at its current level going forward because of a decrease in local property tax revenue. The state may have to find at least another $136 million of new revenue to keep schools funded at the current level.

“I’m losing sleep already,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who is co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

The legislature’s budget committee is expected to start addressing how much schools will receive next year in early March.

splitting the pie

Charter school funding debate takes center stage at Senate Education Committee

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013.

Parents, activists and school board members from across Colorado spent hours Thursday arguing for and against a bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools.

Members of Senate Education Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 61, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Republican, and Angela Williams, a Democrat.

But the Republican-controlled committee could vote on the legislation as soon as next week.

Supporters of the bill testified that their students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year. Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing.

“Without question, their needs are great,” said Terry Cory Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters for the state.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides..

Under the bill, charters would get a share of such tax increases —both those approved by voters in the past and any that win approval on future ballots.

“This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and communities,” said Joyce Brooks, education chair of the Denver NAACP.

Co-sponsor Hill had a family emergency and left the meeting before testimony ended, prompting the delay on the vote. The bill is expected to win Senate approval but its future is uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House.

School districts increasingly have turned to mill levy overrides as the state has failed to close a school funding shortfall. School districts are required to consult charter schools before asking taxpayers for more money, but they aren’t required to fund them and charters in most districts have historically only seen a marginal amount of any new revenue.

According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, only 11 of the state’s 178 school districts equally share their local tax increases. Such increases must be used for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring that are spelled out in the ballot requests.

Under the bill, school districts across Colorado would need to reallocate a total of about $95 million to charter schools. Lawmakers also would need to find up to $13 million for charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute, according to a legislative report.

Such a drastic reallocation would wreak havoc on school district’s budgets, school board members said at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a one-size-fits-all that favors a few at the expense of many,” said Linda Van Matre, a board member for the Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs.

But charter school parents told the committee that their children deserved an equal footing.

“I voted for my child in 1999 to get my tax dollars,” said Sonya Camarco, who also sits on her child’s Monument charter school board. “And to this day, they don’t.”

Spliting the pie

Should Colorado charter schools get a share of local tax increases? Some Colorado lawmakers think so.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

Teachers at the Ricardo Flores Magón Academy charter school in Westminster have been forced to take four days of unpaid leave to help balance this year’s budget.

The office manager is rationing paper because of a budget that is on “a shredded shoestring,” as school leader Kaye Taavialma puts it. If the vacuum breaks, Taavialma doesn’t know how she’ll replace it.

Such financial challenges are not unusual at many charter schools in Colorado, and yet another attempt to share more local tax revenue with charters is scheduled to get its first legislative test Thursday. (UPDATE: The education committee will take testimony on the bill, but will likely not vote until next week.)

Senate Bill 61 would require the state’s school districts to share a portion of locally approved tax increases with charter schools, which receive state funding but operate independently of the traditional school district system. The combined total school districts would be required to send to the state’s charter schools according to a legislative report: $94.4 million.

The potential impact on districts — and traditional district-run schools also feeling a budget pinch — makes this one of the most hotly contested education bills on this session’s agenda.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, also requires lawmakers to find as much as $13 million to send to charter schools authorized by the state.

Supporters of the bill frame the issue around equity. They say that for too long, the state’s school districts have failed in providing fair funding to charter schools, which educate more than 108,000 Colorado students — many of them Latino and from low-income homes.

“Sadly, many school boards are saying we’re not going to fund our student fairly and equally,” Hill said in a recent interview. “It’s our job to rectify it.”

But critics of the legislation say the issue is a local one, and that such a mandate would thwart the will of the voters who approved the tax increases, known as mill levy overrides.

“The biggest issue is that boards of education make a contract with voters when they pass a mill levy,” said Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I think local school boards pass those mill levies often consulting with charters. This bill is an attempt for a one-size fits-all and there are 178 stories out there in Colorado.”

Mill levy overrides have become an increasingly popular way to supplement school districts’ budgets as the state has not made significant headway in closing a $830 million school funding shortfall.

School districts may ask voters to increase their property taxes to fund specific programs such as after-school tutoring or teacher training. Under current state law, school districts are not required to share the funding with charter schools.

The proposed legislation only mandates that districts share revenue if charters have comparable programs to what voters approved. For example, if voters approved a tax increase to provide free full-day kindergarten, a charter school can only get a portion of that money if it offers full-day kindergarten.

According to an estimate by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, 11 of the state’s 178 districts equitably share their overrides with charters.

This isn’t the first time the issue has been debated.

Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate passed with bipartisan support a similar bill introduced by Hill. But a committee in the House, controlled by Democrats, spiked the bill.

The legislature is split along the same party lines this year. But Hill said he has hopes that a new crop of lawmakers and leadership in the House could provide a lifeline for the bill.

One freshman lawmaker who could be influential in the bill’s debate is Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. Bridges was endorsed this fall by Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit that advocates for charter schools.

If the bill is assigned to the House Education Committee, which Bridges sits on, he could provide the necessary vote to advance the bill.

Bridges said he has not yet read the legislation.

“I’ll take a close look at the bill when it comes to the House,” he said in a text message. “Whatever happens with the bill, charters and districts should work together to make sure every kid gets a great education.”

Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has also not made her position on the legislation publicly known. In an interview before the session, she said that she was focused on the “big picture” of school funding.

A new wrinkle in the debate this year will be shrinking revenue from property taxes.

By one estimate, property taxes that pay for local schools — both district-run and charter — could shrink by as much as $136 million. That means the state must make up the difference, or schools across the state will be faced with making drastic cuts.

Cook, of the school board association, said the group’s position on the bill does not mean its members are anti-charter, but that all schools need more money and the forecast for the next school year is creating uncertainty.

“Charter schools very well may need more money. Neighborhood schools need more money,” he said. “The system of funding just doesn’t work right now.”

Hill acknowledges the state’s funding system is flawed. He’s part of a group of lawmakers working on reforming the way schools are paid for. But he said he believes lawmakers are a few years away from reaching a compromise, and charter schools should not have to wait.

“It’s time for us to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Whatever public school you go to we’re going to treat you fairly and equally in that region,’” he said.