Putting numbers to a new school finance formula could prove challenging

A group of Colorado lawmakers spent Monday afternoon plugging numbers into a proposed new school finance formula, squinting at a projection of a computer model to determine “whose cheese got moved.”

The phrase — borrowed from the popular management book “Who Moved My Cheese?” about how people deal with change — has become the go-to metaphor for a special committee on school finance charged with rewriting Colorado’s complex and outdated formula for distributing money to school districts. It speaks to the political challenge of changing a system that has been in place for 25 years, even when there is broad agreement that it should.

Committee members opened discussions Monday on a draft bill that has been three years in the making and that could usher in fundamental changes in school finance. This could become one of the most significant education policy debates of the legislative session that starts Jan. 8.

The bill presented Monday would give more weight to students’ needs — including whether students require special education services, live in poverty, or are learning English — and less weight to district characteristics like number of students and cost-of-living that get preference in the existing formula.

But the draft bill is full of blanks that still need to be filled in to determine how much weight each factor gets and whether some factors, like cost-of-living, remain in the formula at all. A fraction of a percent change in the various weights moves millions of dollars and creates different winners and losers.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and vice chair of the committee, said any talk of winners and losers, though, must be kept in perspective.

“Today in Colorado, there are already winners and losers,” he said. “There are students showing up on the doorsteps of schools with needs that that school may not be equipped to meet.”

Lundeen presented one possible formula — he called it a “whispy strawman” meant to spark conversation — that assumes funding for K-12 education would remain relatively constant while increasing money for students needs. Roughly 100 districts come out ahead in this proposal and another 70 would lose money, compared to the current system.

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Summit County Democrat who chairs the school finance committee, presented a different set of assumptions that would raise base funding and preserve some allowance for higher cost of living in the mountain resort communities she represents, along with significantly increasing money for student needs.

Fully funding her formula would cost roughly $1 billion, a number that includes doing away with the legislature’s current practice of withholding money from K-12 education to pay for other budget needs. Known as the budget stabilization factor, it amounts to $572 million this year.

Voters have previously rejected statewide tax increases to put more money into education, and it’s not clear where another $1 billion would come from. Some advocates hope that a fairer school finance formula might inspire taxpayers to say yes in the future. Separate legislation under consideration by the Joint Budget Committee also has the potential to free up more money for education.

McCluskie said she is encouraged that she and Lundeen agree on putting more money toward students living in poverty, those with disabilities, and those learning English, as well as increasing funding for especially remote districts. But she acknowledged that she doesn’t know yet how she’ll turn the committee conversation into a bill with real numbers behind it that could get broad committee support.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, called the proposed changes “significant and valuable.”

But state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, sounded a discouraging note.

“I still see us rearranging the deck chairs and not increasing the money,” she said. “That concerns me.”

And in an indication of the regional differences in play, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, said he has a hard time supporting more funding for mountain resorts when the farming and ranching communities he represents in northeast Colorado pay much higher property tax rates.

“It’s hard for me to have much sympathy for Aspen when they have the mill levy that they have and my rural districts are maxed and capped,” he said. Due to its higher property values and a complicated interplay of various provisions in the state constitution, Aspen levies just 4.4 mills, while many other districts charge the maximum rate under state law, 27 mills.

Committee support for the bill would send an important bipartisan signal, but McCluskie said individual lawmakers could also move forward without it.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and former school superintendent, said it would be a mistake to give up. His biggest concern, he said, is the sense that “no matter what we do, this is going to die.”