School funding supporters take stand on eve of legislative session

Education advocates and superintendents Monday set a marker for what they want out of the 2016 legislative session – no cuts in state school aid for this school year and no increase in the funding shortfall for 2016-17.

“We want to make sure we hold our own this legislative session,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger.

Superintendents, business leaders and others made their pitch at a Capitol news conference packed with parents, teachers, students and others who’d been organized to attend by several education interest groups.

Total school funding — $6.2 billion this year — comes from a combination of state and local tax money. If there’s more local revenue than projected, the state is able to reduce its share. If enrollment is lower than what was forecast when the school finance law was passed in the spring, the legislature also can reduce total spending in the middle of the school year.

Both enrollment and local revenue have changed from original projections. Lower enrollment means a potential saving of $24 million to the state, while higher local revenues mean the state could reduce its share of school spending by $135 million, according to legislative staff economists.

Districts want to keep that total of $159 million, or at least a good chunk of it.

The school finance law passed by the 2015 session contained a non-binding statement that lawmakers would consider not cutting state share if local revenues were higher than expected.

“We did get a pledge from the legislature, so we’re asking for reconsideration,” Messinger said.

The superintendents’ other priority is to prevent an increase in the negative factor, the amount that K-12 support falls short of projected full funding. The negative factor is $855 million this school year, and Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed raising it to $905 million in 2016-17.

“What we’re asking is that the hole not get any deeper,” Messinger said.

Also speaking at the news conference were Bob Deibel, former chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce; Shannon Bird, Westminster City Council member, and Superintendent Kirk Banghart of the Moffat 2 school district in the San Luis Valley.

Said Bird: “I’ve been told there’s nothing that could be done” about school funding. “Well, I don’t believe this. Our legislators are smart people who are elected to solve tough problems.”

Several lawmakers have expressed sympathy for the superintendents’ position. But the legislature faces tough financial choices this session, and final budget decisions won’t be made until April.

The state’s superintendents first took a high-profile stand on school funding during the 2014 session. Since then lawmakers have made some trims in the negative factor, but fiscal realities have prevented the superintendents from getting all they’ve proposed.