School Finance

Lawsuit claims school funding reduction mechanism unconstitutional

Updated 9 a.m. – A group of school districts and parents filed a lawsuit Friday arguing that the device used by the legislature to control annual K-12 spending, the so-called negative factor, is unconstitutional.

The suit, filed against the state in Denver District Court, argues that the negative factor violates Amendment 23, the constitutional provision that requires school funding to increase by inflation and enrollment growth every year.

The suit has been expected for some time and opens a new front in the policy war over the negative factor, a conflict that intensified during the 2014 legislative session. It’s estimated that use of the negative factor has cut about $1 billion a year from what school districts otherwise would have received for basic operating costs. (See text of suit here.)

The plaintiffs ask that the negative factor section be stricken from the state’s school funding law and that the legislature be barred from reinstating the factor in another form. The suit does not ask that lost funding be restored.

Lead lawyers in the case are Timothy Macdonald of Arnold and Porter and Kathleen Gebhardt of Children’s Voices, a Boulder public interest law firm. She was the lead lawyer in the long-running Lobato v. State school funding suit, which was thrown out by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2013. (Get full background on the Lobato case here.)

Kathleen Gebhardt / File photo
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Kathleen Gebhardt / File photo

Gebhardt told Chalkbeat Colorado that the final decision to file was made on Tuesday, partly because recent state revenue forecasts (see story) indicate continued improvement in state finances.

“It’s a simple claim, just that the negative factor violates Amendment 23,” Gebhardt said, describing it as a very different case from the complex Lobato suit.

The plaintiffs in the new case include the Colorado Springs 11, Boulder Valley, Mancos, Holyoke and Plateau Valley school districts, along with the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Other plaintiffs are the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus and the Colorado PTA. Four sets of parents with children in the Kit Carson, Lewis-Palmer and Hanover districts also have signed on to the suit.

The lead plaintiffs are Lindi and Paul Dwyer, who have four daughters in the Kit Carson district, and the case takes their name, Dwyer v. State. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Education Commissioner Robert Hammond are the named defendants in the suit.

Lawyers from four Denver law firms have agreed to assist Gebhardt with the case without charge.

What Amendment 23 does

Passed by voters in 2000, A23’s backers intended for it to provide a predictable and growing source of funding for schools. The amendment’s goal was to restore per-pupil funding to 1988 levels over time. For the first 10 years after passage the amendment required that funding increase an additional 1 percent a year on top of the increases for inflation and enrollment.

State funding for schools comes in two chunks. The larger amount, base funding, provides an identical per-student amount to every district. The second chunk, called factor funding, gives districts varying additional per-student amounts based on district characteristics such as numbers of at-risk students, low enrollment and cost of living for staff.  Local property and vehicle tax revenues also contribute to what’s called total program funding for schools.

(A third, smaller pot of state support known as categorical funding provides money to districts for programs such as special education, gifted and talented and transportation. While A23 requires overall categorical funding to increase by inflation every year, the money is not distributed by the same formula that governs total program funding.)

The key fact is that up until the 2010-11 school year, the legislature applied the inflation-and-enrollment increase to both base and factor funding. (Because of the recession, in 2008-09 and 2009-10 the legislature cut school funding by other means.)

Behind the negative factor

School funding chart
Source: Colorado legislative staff. Click for larger view

With the economy still squeezing state revenues, in 2010 the legislature created the negative factor (originally called the stabilization factor) to control school spending as lawmakers continued to struggle with the overall state budget. It applied to the 2010-11 K-12 budget and has been in effect ever since.

The legal reasoning behind the negative factor is that A23 applies only to base funding, not to factor funding. And while the original A23 factors are intended to increase school funding, the negative factor gives lawmakers a tool for reducing it. This is the key issue under attack in the new lawsuit. The negative factor hasn’t been tested in court before. Its rationale is based on a 34-page 2003 memo issued by the Office of Legislative Legal Services at the request of then-Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. (Read memo here.)

“Amendment 23 precludes the General Assembly from purporting to grow the base but then slashing overall education funding by fundamentally revamping or jettisoning the [finance] formula as in effect in 2000,” the suit argues.

The policy debate

Negative factor impact
  • $5.9 billion K-12 funding in 2014-15 with
  • $6.8 billion without

A23 isn’t the only constitutional provision that applies to the state budget. Among other things, the constitution requires a balanced state budget every year, limits the amount of new revenue that can be spent even in years of high growth and restricts property taxes in a way that has reduced growth of local district revenues.

Because of those restrictions, policymakers who support the negative factor argue that it’s necessary to prevent K-12 spending from consuming larger and larger shares of the state’s general fund budget and squeezing out other state programs.

With state revenues improving, reduction of the negative factor was the top priority for education interest groups during the 2014 legislative session. Their proposals ranged as high as $275 million. In the end lawmakers agreed to a $110 million reduction.

The Hickenlooper administration and legislative budget experts resisted a larger buy down, arguing that a bigger amount would put too much pressure on the state budget in future years. That can happen because reducing the negative factor puts more money into K-12 base funding, which is subject to A23’s multiplier in the future.

Lawsuit backers met with key lawmakers near the end of the session, but legislators reportedly refused to be swayed by any possibility of a suit.

What happens next

As usually happens in these kinds of constitutional cases, the attorney general is expected to ask the district court to dismiss the suit. If that happens, the plaintiffs would appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Assuming the case stays alive in district court one way or another, both sides could file their written arguments by the end of the year – creating a pile of legal documents for the 2015 legislature to ponder as lawmakers consider the 2015-16 budget and how big a negative factor to include.

Interest groups already are gearing up to push for additional factor buy downs in 2015, and a live lawsuit will provide additional fuel and tension for the debate.

 

Petition Time

Try, try again: Latest attempt at school funding measure would raise $1.6 billion with income, corporate tax increases

Colorado voters could see a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on their November ballots.

Backers of a major school funding measure have been cleared to gather signatures by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. The measure – going by Great Schools, Thriving Communities – would increase the corporate tax rate and increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 a year, as well as change how residential property is taxed for schools.

“Colorado schools are severely underfunded right now, and this initiative is a way we can ensure that every student has access to the supports they need for success,” said Susan Meek, a spokeswoman for Great Education Colorado, one of the groups supporting the measure.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase, and voters have twice before rejected statewide school funding measures, most recently in 2013.

To get on the ballot this time, supporters need 98,492 valid voter signatures. Amendment 71, approved in 2016, requires that those signatures be gathered in every state Senate district in the state, imposing – by design – a logistical and financial hurdle on all constitutional amendments. (A federal judge has suggested that requirement might violate the U.S. Constitution, and it’s not clear right now whether it will remain in effect.)

The tax measure calls for:

  • Raising the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
  • Raising the income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
  • Setting the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent for schools. That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate.
  • Setting the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent, less than the current 29 percent.

According to a fiscal analysis by the state, the average taxpayer earning more than $150,000 would pay an additional $519 a year, while those earning less would be unaffected. The average corporate taxpayer would pay an additional $11,085 a year. The change in property taxes would vary considerably around the state, but based on the average statewide school levy, many property owners would pay $28 more on each $100,000 of actual value in 2019 than they otherwise would. Commercial property owners will see a decrease, and total property tax revenue collected by school districts would go down statewide.

If approved, the taxes would generate an estimated $1.6 billion that would go into a new “Quality Public Education Fund.” The vision is that this money would be distributed to schools in accordance with a new school finance formula backed by nearly all of the state’s superintendents and under consideration in the legislature this year.

The new funding formula, which would increase per-pupil funding in accordance with student characteristics like being gifted and talented or learning English as a second language, only goes into effect if voters approve the tax measure. If that plays out, no school district would lose money on the deal, and some would see significant increases in funding.

If lawmakers don’t pass a new funding formula, but voters approve the tax measure, schools would still get more money. The ballot measure calls for an increase to the base amount of per-pupil funding, plus extra money for students with particular needs, money for public preschool, and money for full-day kindergarten.

Full funding for kindergarten has been an elusive Holy Grail for education advocates in Colorado.

“Our measure is addressing the needs of the kids head on,” said Donald Anderson, one of the backers of the tax increase. “You can see where we’re raising this money and you can see where it’s going, and it’s very transparent in a way that voters will be able to get behind.”

Anderson is a stay-at-home father of two children in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins who has been active on school issues.

The ballot measure also contains a provision that requires the state to keep spending what it already does. That is, lawmakers can’t lean on this new money source and divert existing education spending to other needs.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education reform group Ready Colorado supports the idea of weighted student funding contained in the proposed new finance formula, but he doesn’t think Colorado’s education system needs a huge infusion of cash – if voters even go along with the idea.

“I don’t understand why the presumption is that spending more money will make things better,” he said. “Spending money on the same things won’t produce different outcomes.”

The education spending measure could be sharing space on a crowded ballot with a governor’s race, a transportation measure, and more.

The most recent attempt to raise money for schools – Amendment 66 in 2013 – was rejected by 65 percent of voters. That measure affected all taxpayers by imposing a 5 percent income tax rate on those earning up to $75,000 and a 5.9 percent rate on those earning more. It also involved a change to the funding formula, but one that caused some districts to lose money.

Is this a good time to try again for an education tax increase? Backers of the idea say there’s only one way to find out.

“We have one of the best economies in the nation right now, and it’s the perfect time to be investing in our students,” Meek said.

School Finance

Big blow to Indianapolis Public Schools’ bid for tax increase: Realtors aren’t sold

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A politically influential group representing real estate agents is taking the rare step of opposing Indianapolis Public Schools’ $725 million proposal to raise property taxes to increase school funding.

The opposition deals a harsh blow to the referendums, which the district downsized earlier this week in the face of criticism and little public support.

“Most importantly, we are concerned that property owners have not been given enough detail or clarity on the individual impact,” said the statement from the MIBOR Realtor Association. “The recent change to the proposed dollar amount only elicits more concern with IPS moving forward with their short timeline.”

 

The association opposes the request because it would be burdensome for Indianapolis residents, CEO Shelley Specchio said. She also criticized the district for not providing clear enough information on how the tax increase would impact individual property owners and how it would be used in schools.

“It was a difficult decision — not something that we took lightly, because of course, we really value strong quality schools,” Specchio said. But “we felt that the tax increase would be burdensome to homeowners.”

In a statement, chief of staff Ahmed Young said the district will continue working with the community.

“IPS is committed to being a good steward of taxpayer resources,” Young said. “We lowered the operating referendum ask on Tuesday as part of this commitment. We look forward to further collaboration with the community to advocate for our schools.”

The real estate agents group has about 8,000 members in Central Indiana. It has been one of the largest local contributors to campaigns for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board, giving thousands of dollars in recent years to support at least four of the current board members.

This is the first time the group has opposed an appeal for more money from a school district, said Chris Pryor, vice president of government and community relations. It has not taken a position on any Marion County school funding referendums, he said. But it has supported raising taxes for schools in other places, such as Anderson, and donated money to the campaigns.

Other influential groups, such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, have not yet taken positions on the referendums. Many community leaders agree that the district needs more funding, but they have raised concerns about the size of the request.

The opposition from the real estate industry group is a significant blow for the district because there has been virtually no campaign in support of the measures so far, said Ed Delaney, a Democratic state representative who lives in the district. The association is the first civic organization to take a position.

“I’m sorry that an organization like that, which has shown an interest in our community, would feel that they had to take this position,” Delaney said. “I’m saddened that we’ve come to this.”

Just two days ago, the school board responded to community concern by cutting its request from nearly $1 billion to about $725 million over eight years in a bid to win political support. The two measures, which will go before voters in May, would raise money for expenses such as teacher pay, special education services, and building improvements.

If the referendums pass, the tax increase for homeowners would be $0.58 per $100 of assessed value. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $23.24 per month.