Consider this: In 2017, Colorado schools spent $2,000 per pupil below the national average — just $9,575 per child — landing the state in the bottom 25 percent nationally, 38 out of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
One of the results of this lack of funding? This year, 59 percent of Colorado school districts — including Norwood’s schools — can only afford a four-day school week.
This is happening at a time when Colorado’s economy is one of the most robust in the country, so what gives?
It turns out a patchwork of legislative measures, some decades old, has been combining to suck money out of school coffers.
According to figures provided by Telluride School Board President Stephanie Hatcher, since 2010 over $6.6 billion has come out of school funding statewide, $830 million in 2017-18 alone. In Telluride, she said, that translates into a cumulative $9 million over 9 years, or $1,000 less per student per year.
These shortfalls are the subject of ongoing meetings between the Telluride School District Board of Education and Superintendent Mike Gass, as they examine the factors causing the funding gaps and what to do next.
“There are a lot of things that have come together to affect school funding,” Hatcher explained.
First, there is the Gallagher Amendment, a 1982 amendment to the state constitution that has had the effect of drastically reducing local property tax revenue.
“Gallagher puts the pressure on state resources by reducing the local share and increasing the state’s share of K-12 education funding,” she said. “Then there’s the TABOR aspect.”
Passed in 1992, TABOR, or the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, was another amendment to Colorado’s constitution; this one restricts revenues for state and local entities, including school districts, and requires voter approval of any tax hikes. Gallagher and TABOR worked in tandem so that by the end of the 1990s, Colorado schools were in trouble. As a result, in 2000, voters approved Amendment 23 to the constitution, which should have hitched K-12 education spending to the rate of inflation. When the economic downturn came along, however, state legislators “reinterpreted” Amendment 23 so that they could cut state funding for schools through a complex mechanism called the “Negative Factor.” It’s the Negative Factor, along with the Gallagher Amendment and TABOR, that has led to that $6.6 billion hole.
“Chronic underfunding for schools,” Hatcher said. “It’s just less and less and less money every year.”
Hatcher pointed out, for instance, that Colorado’s growing economy should correspond with growing options for its school-aged children.
“What is happening, though, is that (funding cuts in education) mean narrowing choices for students instead of expanding them,” she said. “The narrowing budget … means bigger classes and less specialized learning. Whatever is on the edges is getting squeezed.”
Hatcher also highlighted that these year-on-year budget reductions has coincided with a time when the role of schools is expanding.
“The decrease in funding over these 10 years is happening at a time when schools are being charged with managing deeper issues, programming like social-emotional support, families in need and community values,” she said. “Funds are being reduced at a time when schools are being asked to do more and keep programming paced with changes in the economy.”
The funding cuts at the state level brought about by the Negative Factor, coupled with the loss of local property tax revenue, due to Gallagher and TABOR, mean that the Telluride’s board of education is examining all options, including, according to Hatcher, possibly asking voters for a mill levy override.
“We are sensitive to voters, but we believe that funding high-quality education in our public schools is good for our community,” she said of potential local measures. “But, we want to be mindful of what’s being asked of voters in November.”
At state level, the ballot on Election Day 2018 will include Amendment 73, a combined constitutional amendment and state statute. If approved, the measure will, among other things, raise the tax rate on the state’s top earners and then use the proceeds to boost K-12 education spending. Hatcher said that Telluride’s board of education is looking at the possibility of making any actions it takes to raise revenues locally contingent on what happens with Amendment 73.
In the meantime, school board members are mulling a course of action in advance of a special meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
“If we are seeking funding, it’s for teachers and students,” Hatcher said. “It’s to retain the wonderful teachers we have and recruit new ones as we need them and keeping our small class sizes.
“Teachers and kids are what we are about.”