McKibbin’s Scribblin’s: A critical mass approaches?
Doom and gloom was the tone of the message I heard the other day from officials with Garfield School District Re-2, as they explained the serious funding woes they and nearly all other Colorado school districts have experienced since the Great Recession. And they warned of more potentially dire financial straits in a few years.
As you can read in today’s issue of The Citizen Telegram, the local school district is looking at making pretty significant budget cuts within the next several years that could cost up to 44 district employees their positions. I’m told that’s not quite as much as one school building, but it’s pretty close.
From the district’s point of view, what has to change is how our Colorado lawmakers approach public school funding. Since the state and local economies started to hit the skids in 2008, as I understand it, our elected officials in the state capital somehow managed to siphon some $1 billion from constitutionally-mandated funding increases for education for other needs. It would be interesting to hear the spin on how they managed that, I’d guess.
While state lawmakers were shuffling funds out of education, they were also sending along several expensive reform measures that each district was required to implement and fund. For example, new standards and assessments that required new expanded technology, equipment and infrastructure; annual teacher and principal evaluation systems that require ongoing professional development time and costs, plus added staff to oversee the effort.
What the district, and I would assume all 178 school districts in the state, wants to see is a return of at least a portion of that “borrowed” money, now that the state economy has started to turn around.
It will be interesting to see how the legislature decides to address school finance this year. In fact, if one of our local state lawmakers reads this column and our story, they are more than welcome to send me a guest column. Always like to present as many sides of an issue as possible.
Perhaps to the credit of lawmakers, they did try to change how public education is financed in Colorado. Remember Amendment 66, the statewide measure on the November 2013 general election ballot that would have increased the state income tax to provide an additional $950 million annually for education? Terrible timing on that, since many in Colorado were still struggling to recover from the recession and it was soundly defeated. You might also recall the Re-2 school board did not take a formal position on Amendment 66.
Further complicating things for the local district is the recent big drop in assessed value of natural gas properties in the district, which translates into another big hit to the district’s property tax revenue.
So what might the Re-2 school board do, if lawmakers don’t start to “refund” the money they took when times were bad and the district doesn’t want to make some very serious budget cuts? You guessed it, the idea of a local mill levy hike is not off the table at this point.
While district voters were generous when times were better and approved an increase to their property taxes so the district could build new schools and expand and remodel others, an Re-2 mill levy that would have raised district property taxes to help avoid budget cuts was soundly defeated, 63-37 percent, in November 2011.
I’d say it would still be tough to reverse that outcome, if a new proposal were presented to voters. I’m sure the much-smarter-than-I people in the district administration office in Rifle are aware of what this battle might entail.
But they may have no choice. When local voters turned down that 2011 mill levy hike, they took that cue from voters, cut millions of dollars and went to a four-day school week to save money.
While the sky didn’t fall for everyone then, now the district says look out, it could get really, really nasty. No one wants to see that, so let’s hope our state officials are listening and act in the best interests of Colorado and it’s future residents and workers.
Mike McKibbin is the editor of The Citizen Telegram.
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User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Rifle and New Castle are seeing decent increases in tax revenue, according to financial administrators.