Lawmakers beef up school funding after tax question fails

DENVER - Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected nearly $1 billion in new taxes for public schools.

Amendment 66 failed by a two-to-one margin last November.

Despite that, the state has more tax money coming in than expected because the economy is improving.

Lawmakers increased school funding by more than $450 million for the upcoming school year.

Some of the increase is dedicated to inflation and an expected increase in the number of students.

If the goal for lawmakers was to try to salvage some of the highlight features of Amendment 66 without the tax increase, lawmakers get mixed grades on the report card.

The legislature did not fund full-day kindergarten statewide, which was an emotional selling point of the ballot question.

Lawmakers did increase money for English-language learners, so districts with more kids who don't speak English will get more funds.

They also passed a school spending transparency system, which will create a statewide website to track the dollars spent in each school.

Lawmakers did not fix the student count day issue. Right now there's one day in October to count the students in schools. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) called for an overhaul to track student attendance throughout the school year.

The legislature did not find extra money to for districts with "at-risk" kids.

Without that money to help prevent poorer children from dropping out, districts didn't want to be docked funding when those students stop showing up later in the year.

In general, superintendents prefer to get state money with no strings attached.

After all, they argue, when the economy shrank they had to figure out what to cut at the local level.

"When the state brings back funds, local districts need that same flexibility to restore the funding and the programs that make the most difference," Bruce Caughey, who runs the Colorado Association of School Executives, said.

State lawmakers argue districts will be able to do plenty of that with the increased funding levels next year.

"We targeted some dollars to students that had the greatest need and we gave a lot of dollars back flexibly," State Sen. Mike Johnston (D-Denver) said.

Johnston says the death of Amendment 66 showed that voters don't trust schools to use money well when it comes with no strings attached.

That's why he thinks the spending website is so important.

"So every taxpayer will know where every dollar goes and how it's spent," Johnston said. "If they have questions or concerns they can ask their local school board members about it."

His hope is the website will foster more trust of public school spending, something that could help on a future ballot question.

If the economy keeps healing like it is, lawmakers will have to decide in the next year or two whether to give refunds to taxpayers or ask to keep the surplus for schools.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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