Last week — and at the last minute — 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 student population growth going into the next academic year.
The act contains approximately $242 in additional funds per pupil, bringing average revenue to districts for a Colorado student to $7,662 in 2017-18.
“We’re thrilled,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, the county’s largest school district with about 25,000 students. “It basically held the negative factor the same and did not increase it at all. … Honestly, we couldn’t be more thrilled at this point.”
To determine how much each district will receive under the School Finance Act, base per-pupil funding (about $6,400 in budget year 2016-17) is run through a formula that considers variables including student population, local cost of living and the number of at-risk students. Those variables can significantly increase funding in some districts.
In 2009, in order to make across-the-board cuts from all districts, the legislature added the “negative factor” to the School Finance Act formula, meaning legislators decide how much they want to spend on education and adjust the negative factor to meet that target.
A news release issued by the Colorado Education Association said the ongoing negative factor will remain at $828 million, but the name has been changed to “budget stabilization factor” to reflect the healthier financial environment.
Academy School District 20’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gregory said that while district administration and staff are pleased with the additional funding, the General Assembly’s last-minute approval was not ideal for planning purposes.
“[The budget is] better than it once was,” he said, “but it’s frustrating this year because numbers kept fluctuating from [Gov. John Hickenlooper’s] original proposal. There were warning signs and we were telling our staff to buckle their seatbelts because it was going to be a really bad year. But the result ended up being similar, better even, than what the governor proposed, by almost $50 million.”
“The state was telling us to brace for the worst and that there would be big cuts,” he said.” We were already talking to employees about lowering expectations and that it wouldn’t be pretty. But incrementally throughout the session it kept getting better.”
Gustafson and Gregory said the vast majority of the funding will go to update the compensation schedule for teachers, staff and administration. Gustafson said new District 11 teachers can make several thousand dollars less than counterparts in the county. According to Gregory, District 20 educators already earn in the top quartile in the region.
“District 11 is still behind in the market,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson cautioned, however, that “the fundamental structure of the state budget is still broken,” pointing to the growing Colorado population qualifying for Medicaid and siphoning education 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, Amendment 23 and the Gallagher Amendment, have drastically impacted state expenditures, including those earmarked for education and transportation.
Gustafson added that, after an unsuccessful attempt to woo voters into approving a mill levy override and bond issue last year for the district, the D-11 board is already preparing a mill levy override question for this year’s November ballot.
District 20, on the other hand, passed Ballot Issue 3A last year that increased the debt for the district to $230 million to build new schools and improve existing facilities without raising property tax rates. The funds will be used for capital improvements, but cannot go toward compensation, Gregory said.
State education experts also weighed in on the General Assembly’s decision.
“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.”