January 6, 2015

Aspen, Roaring Fork school officials prepare for legislative battle

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Public school funding is set to be a cornerstone issue of the 2015 Colorado legislative session in Denver, which begins Jan. 7.

As they did in early 2014, superintendents from school districts across the state have signaled that they intend to lobby hard for restoration of school funding taken away during the Great Recession. The school officials sent this signal in the form of a strongly worded letter to key legislators on Nov. 14. Among the 174 superintendents who endorsed the letter were John Maloy, of the Aspen School District, and Diana Sirko, of the Roaring Fork School District.

“We are appreciative of the efforts last year to begin restoring school funding to constitutionally directed levels,” the school executives wrote. “But in spite of this effort, significant challenges remain as last year’s $110 million allocation represents only a little over 10 percent of what is being withheld from schools.”

As the letter states, lawmakers in 2014 made a $110 million dent in the “negative factor,” the gap between the state’s constitutionally obligated funding amount and the actual allocation. But Kate Fuentes, chief financial officer for the Aspen district, says the statewide shortfall sits now at a whopping $880 million. Aspen is roughly $2.2 million behind in this fiscal year, and the Roaring Fork district, with 5,600 students compared with Aspen’s 1,700, is about $6.3 million behind.

By speaking with a unified voice, the superintendents hope to press their point that public schools need more money to pay for the services they’re required to provide — including recent state-mandated testing and accountability measures — but also that the funding should be unrestricted by legislators so that individual districts can backfill their budgets as they choose to do. The letter requests a total of $70 million in funding, with an emphasis on rural districts and districts with students from low-income families in addition to money already included in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recommended budget.

“Decisions about the specific allocations and uses of the aforementioned funds, as well as funds included in the governor’s state budget request, should be made by local boards of education and not be directed by policymakers at the state level,” the superintendents continued. “More specifically, the Legislature should avoid requiring expenditure of any of these funds toward specific programs, reforms, mandates or other earmarks.”

Long story short, superintendents are asking not only for more money but for local control over how that money is spent.

Aspen and Roaring Fork have weathered the state cutbacks of recent years through mill levy overrides and other local funding mechanisms, but both districts face challenges ahead.

ASPEN

Aspen voters have long supported their schools, and they responded to the Great Recession by passing a mill levy override in 2010 and a city of Aspen-only sales tax in 2012. Those measures have gone a long way to fill the funding gap left by the state, but the sales tax, which has provided $1.4 million to $1.6 million annually, is set to expire in 2016. District officials aren’t sure whether they’ll ask voters to renew the tax.

“When that sales tax sunsets, if the state has not figured something out, then we’re going to need to figure out a long-term source of funding,” Fuentes said.

One thing is for sure: If the district decides to ask voters for an extension, it will seek to include Snowmass Village in addition to Aspen.

“If we decide to ask for a renewal on the sales tax for the city, then we want to include Snowmass in the mix,” Fuentes said. “All of their students come to our school.”

Given the dearth of retail shops, grocery stores and other sales tax generators in unincorporated Pitkin County, district officials aren’t considering county inclusion in a sales tax measure. They do hope that, in keeping with the superintendents’ recent letter, state lawmakers will boost overall school funding.

ROARING FORK

Sirko said she thinks the chances are good for some kind of legislative help in the upcoming session.

“I do expect them to try to erode the negative factor so they’re not compounding the issue but taking small steps to reduce it,” Sirko said.

However, Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights limits government spending year over year, so governments may only spend what they did in the prior year, plus inflation. Owing to recessionary cutbacks, schools still haven’t caught up to their 2010 spending levels, Sirko said, but they could do so beginning in 2016. If so, then schools could end up refunding money to taxpayers.

Roaring Fork has weathered the recession fairly well, thanks to a voter-approved mill levy override in 2011. That infusion of locally generated cash covers about two-thirds of the state shortfall to the district.

“I don’t see a fiscal cliff coming our way (in the Roaring Fork district),” Sirko said, “but I think a fiscal cliff all districts could face is something imposed by the TABOR limits in 2016.”

In the end, she said, state officials will have to grapple with a structural conflict in the state constitution, where certain amendments limit state spending and others require the state to increase funding for schools. Because of these conflicts, it will likely take a decade or more to eliminate the negative factor, and lawmakers’ hands may be tied for the foreseeable future.

“Sooner or later, Colorado will have to come to grips with increasing needs and decreasing resources,” Sirko said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on local schools and education. The Times published this story on Monday, Jan. 5, 2014.

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