Since the 2009-10 school year RE-1 Valley School District has lost approximately $15 million in state funding. As the district looks to recoup that lost funding with a mill levy override in the November election a community group, Citizens 4 Education, has stepped up to try to help the community better understand school finance and why a mill levy is needed.
Chris Connor and Alex Wright, two of the 50 community members, parents and teachers who are part of the group, which has no ties, obligations or responsibility to the current school board and administration, spoke at a Rotary Club meeting Wednesday.
While the final election ballot language has not been approved by the school board yet, the citizens group anticipates the district will ask for a $2 million mill levy that will end in five years unless voters vote to extend it. The $2 million amount would make up for the nearly $2 million the district has lost in state funding every year since 2009-10 due to the negative factor, a method the legislature has used to reduce the Amendment 23-mandated increase in school funding.
Through polling teachers and the community, as well as discussion, the group came up with four main goals mill levy funds should be spent on: attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers and staff; preventing the further reduction or cuts to music, arts, sports and other programs in the district; maintaining and upgrading the technology required for students and the district to remain competitive; and replacing and repairing older buses and school vehicles to ensure the highest safety and function for drivers and students.
Connor encouraged people to visit Citizens 4 Education’s website, www.c4ere1.org. “It will give you a very good picture of the challenge that the schools are in, not only just in the state of Colorado, but nationally,” he said.
He explained most revenues to Colorado’s 178 school districts are provided by the state through the Public School Finance Act of 1994, “and we’re a really tough state to get funds from,” Connor said. When voters passed Amendment 23 it was designed to keep funding in the schools, but the state needed money for other areas, so they came up with the negative factor. Over the last six years, RE-1 has been hit with a total negative factor of $15,002,568.
Stop by the Citizens 4 Education booth at the Logan County Fair to get more information about school funding and the mill levy override that RE-1 Valley School District will be pursuing in the November election. (Callie Jones / Sterling Journal-Advocate)
The state’s K-12 per pupil funding used to be fairly even with the national average, but in 2013, Colorado spent $2,070 less per student than the national average. A “Quality Counts 2015: School Finance Grade 2012 Data” report showed Colorado ranks 41st in the nation in per pupil spending. Yet, Colorado has the number one economy right now.
Additionally, according to the Education Law Center, Colorado ranks 50th in teacher wage competitiveness; in October 2016 Education Week showed Colorado is 49th in number of novice teachers in the classroom; and a National Center for Education Statistics report for 2014-15 shows Colorado is 41st in per pupil teacher ratio.
“What that means is that we’re having the highest number of novice teachers, teaching some of the largest classrooms in the country and expecting good outcomes,” Connor said.
All close neighboring states provide more funding per student Colorado does — New Mexico $1,243 more, Kansas $2,157 more, Nebraska $4,511 more and Wyoming $8,019 more, which means they can pay teacher mores.
Not only is RE-1 losing teachers to neighboring states, but nearby school districts as well. RE-1 receives lower per pupil funding from the state than any of the school districts in neighboring counties.
So what about all that pot money?
The first $40 million generated each fiscal year from the marijuana excise tax is credited to the state’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) program to renovate existing school buildings or construct new buildings. BEST grants are competitive, awarded annually and in most cases must be supplemented with local district matching funds.
In 2014, the state legislature created the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund (MTCF) to collect sales tax revenue from retail and medical marijuana. Fifteen percent of the revenue from the 10 percent tax on marijuana retail sales is allocated to local governments and apportioned according to the percentage of marijuana sales within city and county boundaries. The remaining 85 percent goes to the MTCF.
Revenue from MTCF must be spent the following year on health care, to monitor the health effects of marijuana, health education, substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and law enforcement.
While RE-1 has received some money from marijuana, those funds are not available to increase teacher salaries, fund programming or curriculum.
Connor mentioned some of the things RE-1 has done to save money: This year the district is going to a four-day school week; there has been a reduction in hours and benefits to staff; only one salary increase has been given since 2011-12 and there has been a reduction of central office.
At this point, the budget is as lean as it can get without deep cuts to programs that are not mandated by the state, the advocates said.
While some may think RE-1 is paying too much for administration, data collected by Citizens 4 Education shows when compared to other similar sized school districts, such as Brush and Fort Morgan, RE-1 is right in line with what they are paying. Also, what RE-1 is paying its superintendent is again very much in line with what other districts in the region are paying. If the district stopped paying the superintendent today the effect on the overall budget is less than 1 percent.
For more information about school finance you can contact Citizens 4 Education at 970-425-2238, email@example.com, Citizens4Education Facebook page, www.c4ere1.org, or stop by the Citizens 4 Education booth at the Logan County Fair.
Callie Jones: 970-526-9286, firstname.lastname@example.org