In November, the Telluride School District will ask voters to approve a mill levy increase.
The ballot language, known as Question 4A, was given the green light by the Telluride School Board at a special meeting on Wednesday. If approved, the new mill levy would raise $1.2 million annually — money that the district would earmark for retaining and recruiting teachers and staff, maintaining small class sizes, programming and general operations.
The cost to the taxpayer would be an additional $11.61 per $100,000 of a property’s value.
Question 4A is slightly unusual in that the mill levy increase would hinge on whether Amendment 73 to the Colorado State Constitution, also on the November ballot, is passed by voters statewide.
“What we are doing is we are seeking to maximize our override capacity as a district locally and really watching [Amendment] 73 at the state level,” Superintendent Mike Gass explained. “We have set up our language so that if 73 passes, we would not assess our mill levy override.”
Amendment 73 is a combined constitutional amendment and state statute that would establish a tax bracket system, bringing about an increase in taxes for individuals in Colorado earning more than $150,000 per year. It would also increase the corporate income tax rate. The revenue generated would then go toward funding for K-12 education in Colorado. On Wednesday, Telluride’s board of education passed a resolution supporting Amendment 73.
“I think Amendment 73 is a step in the right direction,” Gass said. “I also think people are uncertain whether it’s going to pass or not. They have tried twice before without success [and] they need to pass it with 55 percent voter approval because it’s an amendment” to the constitution.
In the event Amendment 73 is defeated, the school district would then implement the mill levy increase, if local voters approve Question 4A.
According to Gass, the board’s decision comes after nearly 10 years in declining financial support from the state.
“When you look at the combination of TABOR-Gallagher and the way the Negative Factor works in school finance, over the past nine years we have lost $1 million a year,” Gass said. “That’s a big challenge.”
Gass was referring to two elements that affect school funding in Colorado. First, the 1982 Gallagher Amendment, together with 1992’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), has led to steep declines in the local property tax revenues that schools traditionally relied on. The State of Colorado backfills those shortfalls, but since the economic downturn a complex mechanism, that was created by legislators and which is called the Negative Factor, has been used to reduce the state’s contribution.
The result? The loss that Gass mentioned: $1 million in funding each year for the past nine years in Telluride alone. Statewide, the hole is $6.6 billion over that same period.
“When you consider a high-performing district like Telluride and the things we value in Telluride,” Gass said, “we’ve done a great job of really insulating any financial impacts from the students and teachers.”
He continued, “The way I would explain it is that districts in the state have been circling the drain for 10 years. Our goal is to not be close to the drain. Our goal would be to create an understanding within the community of our concerns about funding and why we need it and to remind people how special a Telluride diploma is.”
For instance, Gass pointed out that the Colorado Department of Education has again named the Telluride School District as a District Accredited with Distinction, one of only two districts to earn that elite accolade each year since the award’s inception. Last year, the department ranked Telluride schools the best in the state; this year they placed second.
The performance of local schools runs contrary to the current state of Colorado schools as a whole. Figures provided by the school district show that as of 2016 Colorado ranked 42nd out of 51 states (plus the District of Columbia) in per pupil expenditure, with an average spent of $9,733. This was about $2,800 below the national average of $12,526 per pupil.
Furthermore, this year, 59 percent of Colorado school districts can only afford a four-day school week. Norwood School District is one of those dropping to four days. Ouray contemplated it, but has deferred any decision for now, according to Gass.
Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that Colorado has the largest proportion of public school districts nationwide, with one or more schools on a four-day week — a stark contrast to Colorado’s economy, currently one of the most robust in the country.
For now, Gass said the challenge for himself, the school board, teachers and staff is “making sure that people understand why we are asking for this. Telluride is a small community, we have a good, supportive teacher group behind it and I think we can make the case.
“We need to do something to help us survive until something happens at the state level. We would love for the state to solve this, but at the same time we are going to have to do something to keep the impact away from the classrooms.”