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Hickenlooper signs spending bill for schools

Voters must approve tax hike in November for it to take effect
Hickenlooper

DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law the first update in a generation to the way Colorado funds its public schools.

The new system promises full-day kindergarten, a longer school year for some students, greater authority for principals and more state aid for school districts in poor towns.

But it all depends on voter approval of a $1.1 billion tax hike this November.

“This bill really positions Colorado to be the national leader in terms of school reform and effectiveness,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday shortly before signing Senate Bill 213 at the Capitol.

The new system will allow taxpayers to see exactly how schools are spending their money, he said.

“It’s great to talk about reform, but I think this system’s one that’s going to start demonstrating outcomes,” Hickenlooper said.

Colorado’s Legislature has been at the forefront of education reform for several years, passing graduation standards, tying teachers’ job protections to their students’ performance and calling for kids to repeat third grade unless they can read. But most of those efforts lacked the funding to fully implement them.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, contrived SB 213 after two years of negotiations with education experts and business leaders.

Even so, his bill still ran into choppy waters at its first hearing, when the three superintendents from La Plata County’s school districts journeyed to Denver to oppose it.

The original bill would have required high-wealth districts to ask voters for a property-tax increase. La Plata’s districts fell into the high-wealth category because of the county’s natural-gas production.

Johnston amended the bill to increase floor funding for all schools, and he singled out Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Daniel Snowberger for thanks at Tuesday’s ceremony.

If the bill takes effect, all but 12 of the state’s school districts will see an increase in funding. Montezuma-Cortez schools stand to gain the most in the Four Corners, with an additional $1,257 per student, according to Johnston’s figures. Durango 9-R would get $554 extra per student, and Bayfield $211.

But for some school districts, the increase is a pittance. Ignacio schools stand to gain just $53 a year per student.

“Durango and Bayfield benefited a lot more than Ignacio,” said Ignacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto.

He’s taking a neutral stance on the bill now, although he was very opposed before Johnston amended it.

However, funding of full-day kindergarten will help Ignacio schools, Fuschetto said.

It’s all a moot point unless a coalition of business and education groups can get voters to accept a $1 billion income-tax increase.

“The biggest challenge ahead of us will be convincing all of the people of Colorado, by November, to share in this vision,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, Johnston’s fellow sponsor.

The Colorado Forum, a business group, has filed about two dozen ballot initiatives. They either seek a rise in Colorado’s 4.63 percent flat income tax, or a new graduated system where higher earners pay a higher tax rate.

The group and its allies in the education community will pick one initiative soon, said Gail Klapper, director of the Colorado Forum.

“We should probably have a single title ready to have signatures in the next week or so,” she said.

Supporters will need to gather at least 86,105 signatures from registered Colorado voters to get their question on the ballot.

The effort already has opposition, in the form of a campaign committee called Coloradans Against Unions Using Kids As Pawns.

“SB 213 is a redistribution scheme plagued with earmarks that would result in the largest tax increase in Colorado history – while doing nothing to reform our schools,” said Kristina Cook, the committee’s chairwoman, in a news release.

Hickenlooper pledged Tuesday to campaign for the tax increase once the sponsors pick a single initiative.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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