Fix needed for public school funding inequity
January 27, 2012
Some very different conversations related to funding are taking place within the three public school districts that serve Garfield County and the lower Roaring Fork Valley.
On the one hand, school officials in the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 are assessing how best to spend the district’s new voter-approved mill levy override funds for the benefit of schools, students and teachers in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
At the same time, their counterparts in Garfield Re-2 and Garfield District 16 are having very difficult conversations about where to make further cuts after voters in those districts turned down similar measures in last fall’s election.
Re-1 was one of only five school districts in Colorado to pass such a measure, out of 23 districts that had local mill levy override questions on the fall ballot.
As a result, Re-1 schools are now in the enviable position of being able to restore at least some of the budget cuts that came as a result of multiple years worth of reductions in the state’s K-12 education funding. Re-1 is also in a better position to absorb future state cuts than its neighbors to the west.
All the while, schools in New Castle, Silt, Rifle, Parachute and Battlement Mesa are staring at a future of continued wages freezes for teachers and staff, additional staff reductions, program cuts and possibly even school closures.
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It’s a very stark contrast that illustrates the need for a reliable, inviolate source of state education funding that doesn’t create economic disparity between school districts.
Last month, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in the case of Lobato vs. State of Colorado that Colorado’s current public school finance system fails to meet state constitutional requirements to maintain a thorough and uniform public school system.
The judge found the system to be “irrational, arbitrary and underfunded.”
We have to agree with the parents and students in the 21 Colorado school districts who brought the lawsuit, and with the majority of the state’s 178 school districts that endorsed the Lobato case.
But, instead of heeding the call to action roll up their sleeves and get to work to devise a truly equal and reliable method for funding public schools in the state, Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado State board of education both opted to appeal the decision.
This only further delays what inevitably must happen in Colorado.
Through a combination of competing constitutional tax provisions contained in the Gallagher Amendment, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) and Amendment 23, the K-12 school finance system is broke. It needs to be fixed.
It’s a conversation that should be at the forefront of priorities for the governor, the state Legislature and state education officials. A reasonable solution is needed that can either be acted on legislatively, or presented in such a way to convince voters to act.
Prolonging this long-term approach simply means there will be a continued funding imbalance, as we’re witnessing in our own backyard.