As we round the corner and enter the home stretch for the 2017-18 school year, budget conversations are on the minds of many.
Of course, you know we had to cancel school for students on April 26 because of staff absences related to K-12 funding issues – many of our teachers and staff members rallied at the capitol for increased school funding. Let’s delve a bit deeper into what can be done to address these issues from our local level.
I would like to start with a disclaimer first: None of this has been decided. Jeffco Public Schools might go for all of the following options, or none of them, or some combination. We will be seeking input from the community on our funding issues.
How can schools increase funding? Of course, one way is through action by the state legislature. This is the reason Jeffco Public Schools teachers and staff rallied at the capitol.
However, we don’t necessarily have to wait for the state to address our local funding concerns. Looking ahead to this fall, we see three possibilities:
Bonds – these are basically voter-approved loans, and are only used for construction and capital improvements. Voter approval allows the district to borrow money, then property taxes repay the debt over time, usually 20 years. In 2012 Jeffco passed a bond for $99 million for “warm, safe, and dry” projects. In 2016 the $535 million bond ballot issue did not pass. That same year, Denver Public Schools (the district nearest Jeffco regarding size) did pass a $572 million bond that is currently renovating and improving their schools. Since the average age of our buildings now over 50 years, there are a lot of needs here in Jeffco we will have to consider.
Mill levy override – this is a property tax that can take on several forms (flat dollar amount, adjusts for inflation, specific uses can be defined) but there is a limit; only 25% over what the state provides may be assessed locally. The funds may be used for ongoing expenses such as educator and staff compensation, lower class sizes, and learning materials. Jeffco can currently add up to about $75 million based on that limit. Jeffco last passed a mill in 2012. Voters did not pass the 2016 $33 million mill levy override request. Again as a measure of comparison, that same year Denver Public Schools passed a mill levy override which added $56.6 million to their annual operating budget.
Initiative 93 – this is a constitutional amendment which would add $1.6 billion statewide to education funding with a progressive income tax for those with a household income of over $150,000 annually and C-corporations. If the initiative makes the ballot (signatures are now being collected) and passes, Jeffco’s portion would be between $130-$160 million per year, depending on how it is divided up by the legislature. The initiative has some earmarks for early childhood education and full-day kindergarten. The initiative also provides some residential property tax relief and substantial commercial property tax relief. There is already a statewide campaign underway for this called Great Schools, Thriving Communities.
We will be engaging with the community over the spring and summer to get more clarity on what our community wants to do. Ultimately, our Board of Education will decide on whether local K-12 funding issues will be placed on the November 2018 ballot in Jefferson County, and Initiative 93 will only be on the ballot if enough signatures are collected.
How public schools are funded in Colorado can be confusing, but one thing is clear. Colorado K-12 public education per pupil spending ranks between 40th – 47th in the nation. Also, marijuana taxes have proven to be all smoke when it comes to addressing our real funding needs. While the marijuana funds have added some dollars for construction projects and a few other services, the overall impact has been underwhelming.
What do you think, Jeffco? I look forward to getting your perspective on the best path forward.