Gov. John Hickenlooper told a large audience of school administrators Friday that he “can’t imagine” the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights being repealed and that instead the state needs to “modify the different parts of the constitution to put them more in harmony.”
Hickenlooper’s message to the annual winter meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives probably wasn’t quite what some of the group wanted to hear, on TABOR or on other issues.
After the governor had finished his 20-minute speech, Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger asked Hickenlooper if he would lead a campaign to repeal TABOR. “We will need the governor to lead that charge.”
“To take on that battle … right now, that would be a doomed effort,”Hickenlooper said. “We’d be better served to look at modifying TABOR. I’m not politic, but at least I’m honest.”
Here are the highlights of what the governor said on other key issues.
School spending: He touted his proposed increase of about $380 million in state funding for 2015-16, but he warned about future years. “We’re at a serious turning point” in the following budget year, 2016-17, Hickenlooper said. For that year required K-12 spending increases “will more than eclipse all the projected new money for every other purpose in the state.”
Reducing the shortfall in K-12 spending “should be a priority for all of us,” he added. “But to create a system where no other part of the state [government] is able to grow is going to be a very great challenge.”
“There are no quick fixes, there is no magic wand out there.”
Testing: “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past 12 months on testing,” the governor told the group.
He didn’t refer to any specific possible changes in testing but broadly cautioned against radical changes. “We are seeing an international jobs war. The key to winning that competition is going to be education, and we’ve got to have some way to measure our success.”
He continued, “I get it – the volume of assessments has taken too much time away from teaching. That’s something we should be able to solve.”
But, he cautioned again, “Streamlining can’t come at the expense of maintaining fairness and consistency across every Colorado community.”
Community dialogue: On both finance and testing Hickenlooper stressed the need for expanded community dialogue across the state. “All of us need to do a better job of listening. … No one’s going to get everything they want.”
How schools are doing: “Despite all the budget cuts … there has been a lot of good news coming out of Colorado schools,” Hickenlooper said, citing achievement gains in districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Denver Public Schools and Edison in El Paso County.
“I think we are beginning to close the opportunity gap in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the greatest state … I think our education system is well on its way to being a reflection of that.”
After the governor left, a panel of six superintendents reacted to the speech and discussed other issues.
“I would agree with the governor that I think the repeal of TABOR is a fool’s errand,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain district.
But, as the session closed, Messinger said, “I think we have to be very resistant about accepting this as the new normal.” Changing TABOR “may be impossible, but only if we believe it’s impossible. … We can accept this as the new normal … or we can create the new normal and move a lower tax state into a higher tax state.”
The TABOR amendment requires voter approval for all state and local tax increases. It also sets limits on how much new revenue that state can spend in a given year. Rising state revenues are pushing the state budget toward that ceiling and may require tax refunds as early as the next budget year.
The legislature could submit a ballot measure to voters asking to retain the extra revenues, but it’s considered unlikely that will happen this session.
A second constitutional provision, the Gallagher amendment, sets limits on property tax collections and acts in combination with TABOR to limit local district revenues, shifting the burden of K-12 funding to the state. And a third provision, Amendment 23, requires school spending to increase by inflation and enrollment growth every year.
What superintendents are asking
A large group of Colorado superintendents came together to push for reduction of what’s called the negative factor, the shortfall in K-12 spending that began building after the 2008 recession.
They had some success with that lobbying effort, and this year superintendents are pushing for addition of $70 million to 2015-16 K-12 spending on top of Hickenlooper’s plan. The proposal would allocate $50 million to districts for at-risk students and $20 million to small rural districts.
A statement proposing that idea was signed by 174 superintendents in November, and several dozen of the district leaders gathered at a news conference Thursday to publicize the idea. (Read full statement.)
“This proposal is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said.