April 15, 2015

Marijuana taxes will help Colorado schools to build

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The advent of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado came with the promise of new funding for public schools, but the industry is still developing and tax revenue hasn't reached anticipated levels yet.

Drug Enforcement Administration

The advent of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado came with the promise of new funding for public schools, but the industry is still developing and tax revenue hasn't reached anticipated levels yet.

ASPEN — Weren’t public schools supposed to see some monetary benefit from taxes levied on marijuana sales? When and how will that happen?

As with most government-related questions, the answers are more complex than a “yes” or “no.” But several varieties of marijuana taxes are being collected, and schools are seeing some benefits. Moreover, those benefits are growing as the nascent industry expands and as more local governments open the doors to recreational marijuana outlets within their borders.

For fiscal year 2013-14, the state has collected nearly $19 million in marijuana-related taxes and fees. The bulk of that money has come from retail sales taxes and has been placed in the state’s general fund, where it has been mostly allocated to substance-abuse research, prevention and treatment.

In fiscal year 2014-15, total marijuana tax revenue has already topped $70 million, but only a portion will be directed to the schools — some to construction and some to health and wellness staffing.

Glenwood Springs Elementary School is in line for a major addition if the Roaring Fork School District wins an $8.8 million state grant. The state's school-construction grants now include some revenues from taxes on legal marijuana.

Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

Glenwood Springs Elementary School is in line for a major addition if the Roaring Fork School District wins an $8.8 million state grant. The state's school-construction grants now include some revenues from taxes on legal marijuana.

Building and renovating schools

The single largest chunk of school-designated marijuana tax money comes from the 15 percent excise taxes levied when growers sell their wholesale product to retailers. In fiscal year 2014-15, which runs from July 1 to June 30, the state expects to collect about $16 million in these excise taxes, which go toward school construction projects.

Under Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that legalized recreational marijuana, as much as $40 million in excise tax revenue was promised to schools for capital needs, but the industry is still growing, and revenue is expected to grow with it.

“Maybe we’ll hit that ($40 million) mark in a few years,” said Scott Newell, director of capital construction for the Colorado Department of Education. “We always figured it would take a few years to establish the industry.”

When they come to the state, the excise marijuana taxes are combined with other revenue from state trust lands and the Colorado Lottery and placed in the Building Excellent Schools Today fund, which awards competitive grants each year to schools around the state. In 2013, the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek received a $4.1 million gift to help renovate its aging campus. No recreational marijuana dollars were being collected or awarded at the time.

In the current grant cycle, the first to include marijuana revenue, the only Roaring Fork Valley school on the list of Building Excellent Schools Today applicants is Glenwood Springs Elementary. The Roaring Fork School District is seeking nearly $8.8 million from the fund and would match the state contribution with $17.8 million of its own money, which would have to be raised through a future bond issue.

“It’s going to be a challenge. The BEST program only has $50 million to grant,” said Shannon Pelland, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer at Roaring Fork School District. “I think we have a really strong application and a good project.”

If the district wins a grant — statewide, there are 48 requests seeking a total of nearly $128 million — and successfully raises the rest of the $26.6 million needed, then two buildings on the Glenwood Springs Elementary site would be razed and replaced with a new addition to the original 1921 building.

Newell looks forward to a day when Building Excellent Schools Today can be a powerful engine for schools’ capital needs across the state. To receive $40 million per year in marijuana taxes would provide more than just new roofs and boilers, he said.

“More revenue growth would allow us not to do just a Band-Aid approach to schools,” Newell said. “We’re putting Band-Aids on schools that really need to be rebuilt.”

Hiring health professionals

Construction isn’t the only thing that the marijuana industry is doing for schools. From the sales tax revenue going into the state’s general fund, a portion has been allocated to the Department of Education’s School Health Professional Grant program, which awards grants for schools to hire nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers.

Last year, the program helped 23 districts to hire new, full-time employees to handle their mental- and behavioral-health needs. No Roaring Fork Valley schools were among the applicants. The idea was to use marijuana tax revenue to support schools in handling substance-abuse issues.

Sarah Mathew, director of the School Health Professional Grant Program, said she expects to distribute roughly $2.2 million to schools in the 2015-16 grant cycle, which would allow districts to hire new full-time health professionals for next school year. At the moment, the grants are for one year only, but because the money is being used to hire people, the program will be far more valuable if districts can count on the money every year.

“We’re hopeful that this will be an ongoing program,” Mathew said. “I think at the moment, the governor’s office is waiting, as we all are, to see the landscape of what marijuana taxes will be going forward.”

The Aspen Times and Aspen Journalism are collaborating on education coverage. The Times published this story on April 13, 2015.

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