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Senator pitches funding fix to Valley superintendents

Posted: Thursday, Jan 10th, 2013

Senator Mike Johnston (D) listens to Center Consolidated School District Superintendent George Welsh, far right, on Tuesday afternoon while, from far left, Moffat School District Superintendent Kirk Banghart, Sanford Superintendent Kevin Edgar, Alamosa School District Superintendent Rob Alejo and Creede School District Superintendent Buck Stroh look on. Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — Sen. Mike Johnston (D), Denver, visited with the Superintendent Advisory Council (SAC) on Tuesday afternoon to share his vision for improving education statewide.

Johnston plans to introduce school finance reform legislature this session to address financial adequacy and equity.

His proposal outline includes: a funding increase to early childhood and special education programs, the elimination of the legislative device that has been used to cut K-12 funding by more than $1 billion in recent years, an adjustment to funding weights that currently give some districts extra funding over more at-risk districts, a change in how student enrollment is tallied to produce a more accurate count, and the creation of an “innovation fund” to help districts produce homegrown education reforms, according to his website.

“What will it take for us to build a 21st century system?” Johnston asked. “We are in the process of finding a solution.”

He said he wants to see the legislature pass a modernized state school finance formula that would only be enacted if the voters pass a $1 billion tax increase in November to help tackle what Johnston adds up to $2.75 billion in education reforms.

“I want to see money go into districts more quickly and not have to wait for the legislature,” Johnston said.

The state and local districts currently spend about $5.4 billion a year on basic school operating costs, according to Ed News Colorado. Districts receive additional funds from the federal government, and some districts have extra, voter-approved property tax revenues that aren’t included in base spending. The state last revised the school funding formula in 1994 before recent reform requirements like the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the new educator evaluation system. Periodic legislative studies since have brought forth information, but no significant changes in the formula.

The senator’s plan to fix education adequacy includes eliminating the “negative factor,” a budget driven device that reduces K-12 funding; funding half-day preschool for all at-risk 3-year-olds, full day for at-risk 4-year-olds and pay for full-day kindergarten; and increase special education funding to mitigate the current estimated $500 million annual shortfall.

“We need to put money in places with the most demand,” Johnston said. “We have kids that have a long way to grow.”

His plan to remedy the state’s education equity includes increasing base funding and reducing or eliminating some “funding weights” like area cost of living, numbers of at-risk students, district size, but increasing money for at-risk students; revamping pupil funding counts to more accurately reflect enrollment and student-based funding; and increasing local school support.

He said today larger school districts see about 50 percent more state dollars than smaller or rural districts.

“To me, this doesn’t seem to be a wise investment,” Johnston said.

For example, he said Sierra Grande School District is already taxing the state max, 27 mills, and only sees a 25 percent state return. Durango schools, which are located in a higher assessed value area, asks only 6 mills from the tax payers and sees a 65 percent state return.

‘This is a bad state system that has forced inequity,” Johnston said. “The state built a poor formula.”

He added he is also interested in seeing a mill levy equalization plan developed that would ensure $580 a student if voters approved a minimum 2.5 mill levy override.

“We want to ask districts with higher assessed values to pay,” Johnston said. “We need to offer them a carrot.”

Both Sierra Grande School District Superintendent Darren Edgar and Moffat School District Superintendent Kirk Banghart agreed the system needs readjusting, but they also recognized their communities were responsible for paying taxes so the schools can access their allocated monies.

Banghart also questioned Johnston’s $2.75 billion reform figure, comparing it to the roughly $4 billion figure the Lobato v. State case is asking the Supreme Court to uphold this spring. Last year, a district court judge found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, and the coming decision could meddle with the proposed legislature.

“I think hiding from this $4 billion is a mistake,” Banghart said. “What we need is the $4 billion.”

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