Colorado School Finance Act advances amid questions about rural funding

A $7.4 billion bill to fund Colorado’s K-12 schools took its first step Thursday with unanimous approval from the Senate Education committee, despite differences on how to allocate some of the money.

The committee rejected an amendment to reduce money for rural districts by $10 million and remove $5 million for behavioral health. The amendment would have freed up money to increase special education funding via a separate bill.

But it’s likely the numbers approved Thursday could change, said Education Committee Chairwoman state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and bill co-sponsor.

Lawmakers have more money for schools than anticipated, but competing interests for that cash.

‘It’s just a matter of problem-solving and figuring out what the percentages of how much money from each different area,” Todd said. “So this is still kind of a negotiation. This is the first committee.”

Senate Bill 246, the annual Public School Finance Act, sets average per pupil spending at $8,479, up more than 4 percent, or $356, from the current year.

Other features of the act, which includes $132 million in new money for schools:

  • A reduction of $102 million in the amount school districts are owed because of recession-era budget adjustments. That brings the amount owed to $570.4 million.
  • $25 million in assistance for rural districts.
  • $5 million to address behavioral health of students, with minimum funding of $20,000 per school district.

The extra funding boost is largely the result of an expected increase in local property taxes.

But those numbers appear to be in some doubt as lawmakers negotiate additional funding for special education. An amendment to reduce the money for rural districts and behavioral health failed in committee, with only the two sponsors voting for it. That left the original bill intact.

Rural schools had been lobbying for a continuation of $30 million in “one-time” money that they’ve received for the last two years. Reducing that allocation to $15 million would hit some districts hard — though as recently as a week ago, it seemed like they might get nothing.

The Joint Budget Committee is considering a bill to increase state funding for special education, which doesn’t come close to covering the additional costs districts incur. The money cut from the School Finance Act would have gone to that bill.

However, the process is far from over. There’s still numerous opportunities to amend the finance bill as lawmakers negotiate these priorities.

Todd teared up as she talked about this year’s bill to the committee. “It is such an important investment.”

State Sen. Paul Lundeen said that as a conservative — he’s a Monument Republican co-sponsoring the bill — the $7.4 billion budget represents a lot of money.

But, he said enthusiastically, “Dadgummit, if we’re going to spend money, let’s spend it on the school children of Colorado.”

Teachers, school administrators, and others echoed his enthusiasm. Many praised the extra money for rural schools and behavioral health.

“When you’re a rural school district, every penny is what you rub together,” said Salida Superintendent David Blackburn. “Those pennies go a long long way for us to support our kids.”

Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert commended the extra money to buy down money owed schools, and asked lawmakers to continue down that road.

“Keep us on a path to eliminate the budget stabilization factor by 2022,” she said. “We’re asking to be put on a path to be average in state funding.”

Per pupil funding ranges from $7,983 for the Branson School District in Las Animas County to $18,807 for each of the estimated 77 students in Weld County’s Pawnee School District.

The finance act next goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full Senate. The bill’s first committee appearance came on the same day that Gov. Jared Polis signed the state budget.

A separate bill provides $175 million in funding for universal full-day kindergarten. That is likely to be approved by the Senate and sent to the governor in the next few days.