On Wednesday, Colorado legislators passed the School Finance Act (SB-296) to increase public school funding by $262 million for about 1,800 public schools and 905,000 students. Waiting until the final day of the 2017 General Assembly, both the Senate and House approved the funding to meet the higher costs of inflation and added student growth in the next school year. The act contains an additional $242 per pupil to bring average revenue for a Colorado student to $7,662 in 2017-2018.
“We’re thrilled,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11. “It basically held the negative factor the same and did not increase it at all. Most districts got about $240 [more] per pupil, depending on size. Honestly, we couldn’t be more thrilled at this point.”
To determine how much each district will receive under the School Finance Act, the base per-pupil funding is run through a formula that considers variables including student population, local cost of living and the number of at-risk students. These variables are called “factors” and they substantially increase average per-pupil funding received by a school district to reflect the different costs they experience. The factors exist to address the increased per-pupil costs that result when, for instance, a high percentage of pupils are from at-risk populations or when the costs of running schools and hiring staff are divided among a small student population in a rural district.
Gustafson said, while he’s happy the city’s largest school district will see more per-pupil funding, he could have done without the suspense created by the last-minute passage of the act.
“The state was telling us to brace for the worst and that there would be big cuts. We were already talking to employees about lowering expectations and that it wouldn’t be pretty,” he said. “But incrementally throughout the session it kept getting better.”
Gustafson said much of the funding will go to update the compensation schedule for teachers, staff and administration, adding new District 11 teachers can make several thousand dollars less than counterparts in the same county.
“District 11 is still behind in the market,” he said.
Gustafson cautioned that “the fundamental structure of the state budget is still broken,” pointing to the a growing Colorado population utilizing Medicaid and siphoning educational funding from the state while Colorado property taxes, which also help fund schools, are some of the lowest in the nation.
A complex web of contradictory state laws, including the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, have drastically impacted state expenditures, to include those earmarked for education and transportation.
Gustafson said District 11 would see about $4.7 million in additional funding, thanks to the act, which is about 2 percent of its total $220 million operating budget.
Gustafson said, after an unsuccessful attempt to woo voters into approving a mill levy and bond last year for the district, the district’s board is already preparing a mill levy question for next year.
State officials echoed Gustafson’s sigh of relief.
“Educators were pleased to see legislators rally around the needs of Colorado’s students and put our schools on stable financial footing for the year ahead,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, in a news release. “We’re far from realizing the promise of school support that Colorado citizens want to see for their children, but relieved not to be taking a giant step backward with more state budget cuts.”
The release said the ongoing negative factor will remain at $828 million, but the name has been changed to reflect the healthier financial environment to ‘budget stabilization factor.’
“Colorado is thriving economically but that economic growth is not translating to our classrooms. We must resource all schools so students have caring, qualified educators, more one-on-one attention, inviting classrooms, and a well-rounded curriculum regardless of their ZIP code,” Dallman said in the release.
“I personally credit the modest budget increase to our dedicated members, who visited, called and emailed their legislators and told stories that resonated,” Dallman said in the release. “Educator voice and action drives our advocacy for school funding, and Colorado’s teachers and education support professionals made a tremendous effort during this session to communicate to legislators on both sides of the aisle. I believe our senators and representatives have heard our voice, they realize how past education cuts have hurt our classrooms, and they responded with added school funding wherever they could find it.”
SB-296 heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who is expected to sign the School Finance Act into law.