DENVER - In the 2013 fiscal year, the state of Colorado will short the Summit School District $3.8 million dollars.
That money, 15 percent of the district's total budget, would have helped local schools improve programs, train teachers and meet the growing list of new requirements coming down from the state government.
"Fifteen percent is a significant amount of money," said Mark Rydberg, the district's director of business services. "That's a tough pill to swallow."
School officials say Colorado's current school-funding model is both inequitable - more affluent districts tend to get more state money under the existing distribution formula than poorer ones - and broken, after the state government stopped meeting its financial obligations to school districts a few years ago.
It's a system that both Rydberg and Summit County's state Rep. Millie Hamner want to see fixed. This year, Hamner (D - Dillon) is expected to introduce legislation that would call for the first sweeping changes to the existing education-funding model in two decades and would likely ask voters for more money to do so.
"We're working with a lot of stakeholders to rethink the entire School Finance Act so we can ensure Colorado's method of funding public schools is adequate and equitable," Hamner said. "But in order to implement those changes it looks like we'll need at least a billion dollars."
That's roughly the amount the state government is shorting school districts across the state following the recession-induced state budget crisis. Summit's share in the shortfall was $3.8 million.
But in Colorado, new or increased taxes have to be approved by voters, and even when that money is earmarked for education, it's not always an easy sell. As recently as 2011, voters statewide resoundingly shut down a measure that would have increased sales and income taxes for five years to generate extra money for schools. Hamner and others in Denver are betting on taxpayers having a change of heart.
"The hope is that we're in a new place," Hamner said. "That the public has more of a tolerance now than they did a few years ago to invest more."
Colorado's existing School Finance Act relies on a complex formula accounting for district size, at-risk factors and area cost of living to determine how much money the state provides to districts. The districts then match that money with additional funding from local tax revenue. The split works out so that, on average, the state covers 65 percent of a district's budget, while local taxpayers make up the remaining 35 percent.
Then the state budget crisis hit, and Colorado came up roughly a billion dollars short on education funding. State law requires lawmakers to balance the budget every year. Unable to borrow money or increase revenues to cover the shortfall, the state government simply stopped meeting its financial obligation to districts across the state.
The Summit School District was fortunate. When state funding decreased, local voters approved multiple tax increases to provide extra funding for schools. This year, local taxpayers are covering 90 percent of the district's total budget. Only 10 percent will come from state funding.
"We've had such great community support." Rydberg said. "This district would look very different - larger class sizes, fewer programs - if we did not have that. It's been a huge saver of the quality of education we can offer our students."
But other districts, particularly those in rural or very conservative areas, aren't able to rely on local funding increases to cover the deficit.
"There are a lot of school districts that have tried and have not been able to pull that off, or haven't tried because they know the answer is going to be no," Rydberg said. "The counties are left to either ask taxpayers for additional money or continue to make cut after cut to keep the bare minimum."
Hamner's bill, a joint effort with state Sen. Mike Johnston (D - Denver), would seek to fill in those gaps, ensuring school funding is both equitable and adequate across the state's 178 school districts and providing financial incentives for districts to pass local mill levy overrides.
"What we've been trying to figure out," Johnston said, "is what it would take to build a 21st-century education system that has both adequacy and equity as the driving force."
A draft version of the bill calls for a new need-based formula that would consider both property values and the area median income of residents in determining how much money the state provides to each district. It would also implement a separate funding source for special education so educators aren't forced to borrow from other programs to meet federal requirements and add more student-centered weights to the funding formula.
Hamner and Johnston are expected to introduce the bill this month.
The Denver Post contributed to the reporting of this story.