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March 15, 2013
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School finance bill could 'devastate' Re-2 schools

Garfield School District Re-2 could see a loss in state funding of more than $6 million per year, which local property taxpayers would be asked to make up, under a school finance reform bill currently before the Colorado Senate.

Re-2, along with Garfield District 16 in Parachute and the Aspen School District, are among two dozen school districts that would actually lose money under the new state funding formula outlined by Sen. Mike Johnston in SB 13-213.

The Denver Democrat's bill, which would ultimately require a statewide vote if it's passed in the Legislature, would increase funding for most of the state's 178 school districts.

The Roaring Fork School District Re-1 in Glenwood Springs would see a slight increase in overall funding, although its per-pupil funding rate would still decline about 1.3 percent, said Shannon Pelland, assistant superintendent of business services, at the Wednesday night school board meeting.

"The most significant change in the formula for our district ... is that the cost-of-living factor in the current formula will be eliminated," Pelland said.

The rationale, according to Johnston's bill, is that more affluent districts should be able to address cost-of-living wage adjustments through local mill levy overrides, she said.

Because the proposal would give full per-pupil funding for kindergarten students, rather than the current 58 percent, Re-1's funding rate would actually increase some, she said.

However, Re-2, which includes public schools in Rifle, Silt and New Castle, would be among the biggest losers in terms of state funding because of the huge increase in assessed property values during the oil and gas boom of the mid-2000s.

The proposed new formula under Johnston's bill applies what's called an "ability-to-pay" factor.

Under the plan, districts that have a higher assessed valuation would be "held harmless" for five years, during which they must attempt to pass local mill levy overrides to make up the funding difference.

Voters in Re-2 rejected the last attempt to pass a $3 million mill levy override in 2011, at a time when state budget cuts led to a significant decline in state funding for all districts.

According to a district-by-district analysis of the proposed finance formula under Johnston's bill, Re-2 ranks second only to Durango schools in terms of the amount of state funding it would lose, at $6.2 million, compared to Durango's $7.2 million.

District 16 would also lose about $483,000, while Aspen, as one of the wealthier districts in the state, stands to lose $1.2 million.

According to Re-2 Superintendent Susan Birdsey, a combination of the new funding formula and existing mill levy restrictions could mean the district may lose up to $12 million.

As it is written, "it could devastate our school district," Birdsey informed the Re-2 school board at its March 12 meeting.

Under the proposed new formula, districts that have a high cost of living, or have benefited from a significant increase in assessed valuation, would see less state money, which would be diverted to poorer rural districts.

Johnston, in his explanation of the proposal, refers to it as a "reverse Robin Hood" effect, where the state subsidizes wealthier districts based on what they've been able to raise in local taxes, not their ability to pay more based on a higher assessed valuation.

In the case of both Re-2 and District 16, oil and gas development resulted in a significant increase in assessed property value prior to the implementation of the state's mill levy freeze legislation in the late 2000s.

As assessed value increased, mill levies dropped and could not be adjusted upwards when the assessed value dropped after 2010 without a voter-approved mill levy override.

The Johnston bill, if passed in the state Legislature, would still have to go to state voters next November in order to become law.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Mar 15, 2013 01:13AM Published Mar 15, 2013 01:12AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.