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Regional school officials steamed about loss of funding

As balance sheets sink, educators look to sway political debate

Regional school officials are sick and tired of the state eroding education funding.

“In 28 years, this is the maddest I’ve been,” Mancos School Superintendent Brian Hanson said at a Feb. 27 meeting of area school representatives in Durango.

He was referring to “the negative factor” – ongoing state take-backs of public school funding since 2009.

“It’s time to say ‘Enough,’ to get people to push back on the Legislature to fund education,” Hanson said.

Voters in his district passed a $276,000 mill-levy override two years ago.

“In the last two years, the state has, in essence, taken that,” Hanson said. The latest was a $67,000 take-back in December 2013.

“We’re no better than we were two years ago,” Hanson said.

A man from the Mancos district said during the mill levy override campaign, he had to promise voters the money wouldn’t be used for things like a swimming pool.

“Just give the (negative factor) money back,” he said.

The Feb. 27 meeting included representatives from school districts in Southwest Colorado.

Paula Stephenson from the Rural Schools Caucus said, “Frustration is palpable in the state. The promise of the last four years (from the state) was when the economy starts to recover, you’ll get some money back. The tide has been rising for two years, and the cuts are continuing. It’s not sustainable. We aren’t backing down. It’s time to address this issue.”

The state now has billion-dollar revenue surpluses even without the tax money pouring in from retail marijuana sales, Stephenson said.

“But we have a governor and legislators who haven’t put a value on K-12. ... They are saying we can’t give it to education because it would be a recurring cost” even as legislators have proposed 48 education-related bills with recurring costs of $389 million ($303 million in bills related to K-12), she said.

They expressed concern about HB 1272, called the Student Success Act, that carries $148 million in recurring costs in addition to those above. SB 1272 is 175 to 180 pages, versus the one-page bill to repay the negative factor cuts.

School-district representatives from around the state packed a House committee hearing last week to press their demands.

There was talk at the Feb. 27 meeting of mass rallies at the state Capitol.

A man from the Mancos district said, “At some point, a bunch of people have to make a big noise on the steps of the state Capitol” to get news coverage.

Stephenson asserted the governor is terrified of a mass gathering of school buses there.

Kathy Gebhardt, an attorney who was involved with the Lobato school-funding lawsuit against the state, said she is preparing another lawsuit to force the state to abide by Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000 to require annual increases in state per-pupil funding.

A lawyers’ committee started meeting in January, she said. “We think we have a pretty strong case against the state for violating 23 with the negative factor. ... We think they were cutting the base. Clearly they violated voter intent, but we think they violated the letter of (Amendment) 23.”

The state operates under a 1994 school-funding formula that sets a base for per-pupil funding with adjustments for local factors. Amendment 23 mandates increases above that formula. It was a response to the 1992 TABOR Amendment mandate for the state to refund “excess” revenue to taxpayers at the same time school funding was being cut, Gebhardt said.

Amendment 23 was an attempt “to get back to 1988 (school) funding levels,” she said.

The statewide cumulative total of negative factor cuts since the recession started in 2008 is now around $1 billion, Gebhardt said.

“Last year, as the economy started to recover, we thought the government would start to repay the negative factor, but no,” she said. “We’re getting farther and farther from the intent of Amendment 23.”

Gebhardt said she has been meeting with school districts to get feedback on another lawsuit. So far, none is opposed.

“We met with legislators regarding a settlement, and they said not only no, but hell no. It will take decades to refund the negative factor,” she said.

Before that, TABOR refunds are likely to kick in again, so there is a statewide “de-Brucing” measure being prepared in hopes the Legislature will put it on the ballot, she said. That’s a ballot measure to allow a government entity to keep and spend revenue increases above the TABOR limits.

Gebhardt complained that “There’s no political courage” from Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature. “The Republicans are way more responsive to solving this than the Democrats,” she said.

She added, “We don’t think the governor (John Hickenlooper) wants to campaign (for re-election this year) that they found a loophole (in Amendment 23) and drove a truck through it.”

Stephenson asserted, “We have a governor that doesn’t value education. ... It’s an election year. If you don’t think education will be an issue, think again.”

“We are our own worst enemy,” Gebhardt said of school districts. “We get used to doing more with less and more with less, don’t rock the boat. We’ve never said ‘We can’t do it.’ With all the new mandates and assessments and less money.”

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