Amendment 66: What’s in it for Jefferson County?

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It is widely accepted that if voters approve Amendment 66 on Nov. 5, the measure will pump at least $71 million of new funding into Jefferson County Public Schools.

After that, who knows?

There are a number of complexities tied the school finance overhaul ballot question, which makes it difficult for supporters to articulate a “bottom line” dollar figure to uneasy voters.

At the same, it’s not uncommon to hear opponents discount nuance when talking about Amendment 66’s involved funding structure, often citing funding percentages that are probably worst case scenario for Jeffco.

If passed, the measure would create $950 million in new taxes initially and about $1 billion in 2015 to enact major changes to the state’s school finance formula.

The measure would fund full-day kindergarten, preschool for at-risk youth and would provide more resources for English language learners, special education students and children who are in gifted and talented programs.

Additionally, the measure aims to reduce class sizes and would reform per-pupil funding statewide in a more equitable fashion, proponents argue.

But the overhaul comes with a hefty price tag. Amendment 66 would raise taxes on all Colorado taxpayers. The two-tiered proposal would raise income taxes to 5 percent on everyone earning $75,000 or less. Those who earn over that amount would pay 5 percent on the first $75,000 in taxable income and 5.9 percent on taxable income above $75,000.

Colorado’s current income tax rate is a flat 4.63 percent, regardless of income level.

But just how much of those tax dollars will end up going to Jeffco schools is a question that nobody can answer at this time. Amendment 66 proponents acknowledge that taxpayers in Jefferson County will not see a 100-percent return on investment, meaning that a good portion of their tax dollars will go to students in other school districts.

That’s a key fact that opponents often latch on to when arguing against the amendment. But supporters say that’s the price of doing business when the goal is to have adequate and equitable funding for all children across the state.

“This is not just about Jefferson County,” said state Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, an Amendment 66 supporter. “I’m looking out for the good of the whole state. We may not get all of the money back, but why not have a generous attitude?”

Total funding will vary

If voters pass Amendment 66, it would restore school dollars back to 2009 levels, before the state cut about $1 billion in funding during the economic downturn of that period.

Amendment 66 would bring $71 million in new revenue to the Jeffco school district, which is currently the largest school district in the state. That breaks down to $7,112 per pupil, which would mean a 9.7 percent increase over the $6,486 that the current funding system allows.

About $33 million of the spending from new revenue would be mandated, most of it earmarked to support full-day kindergarten and preschool programs for at-risk students.

Roughly $20 million of the mandated dollars would provide additional funding to area schools that receive federal funding and that have large numbers of children who are eligible for free lunch programs.

Much of the money that Jeffco schools with high “at-risk” populations receive would be spent at their own discretion.

“We have smart principals and smart schools, and they’ll use the money appropriately,” said Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. “They could hire another teacher, have more technology, or bring in more tutoring, whatever.”

As for the rest of the $71 million, about $38 million would be up to the district to determine how the money is spent.

After that, Stevenson said that Jeffco has the potential of bringing in an additional $31 million into the district by way of other types of funding that will depend on legislative action and the amount of tax revenue that is actually collected by the state. That includes a potential for an additional $18 million in special education funding.

State Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a member of the Legislature’s Senate Education Committee, is a teacher with the district’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, an online middle and secondary school. Kerr, a proponent of Amendment 66, points to another area of funding that the district should expect to see as a result the measure — a chunk of a $100 million education innovation grant program, where teachers and administrators would be able to apply for education project funds.

“If we’re funded on a per capita basis, and Jeffco is about 10 percent of the state, we would get 10 percent of that,” Kerr said. “That’s $10 million.”

What opponents say

Proponents believe that Amendment 66 could end up bringing somewhere between $71 and $102 million into Jeffco schools, money that they say the district needs badly.

But opponents believe the return just isn’t worth the investment for Jeffco taxpayers. They say that for all of the talk about money beyond the “guaranteed” $71 million, there is just no way to know how much of those funds will end up here.

Because of that, opponents stick to their belief that Jeffco schools will only get back a little more than 50 cents for every dollar that is spent by county taxpayers. That’s based off a calculation where Jeffco would end up paying about $126 million in new taxes.

Supporters believe that the district could end up getting back up to 80 or 90 cents for every Jeffco tax dollar, when it’s all said and done. But opponents scoff.

“It’s possible we’ll get more money, but that means that Jeffco taxpayers are going to pay more while the percentage remains the same,” said Laura Boggs, a conservative member of the Jefferson County Board of Education.

Opponents also blast the measure because it will send more money to schools in Denver and Aurora than any place else. That’s true. Denver will see its per-pupil funding increase by about 15 percent, while Aurora students will get a 17 percent per-pupil increase, compared to Jeffco’s 9.7 percent rise.

Of course, Denver has nearly twice the number of at-risk students as Jeffco. But that’s not the point, opponents say.

“It fundamentally treats the same type of student different, based on which district they’re enrolled in,” said Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute. “The rich are getting richer because (Denver Public Schools) is already bringing in more dollars than students in Jeffco.”

DeGrow and Boggs also say that it’s unfair to Jeffco that children who are deemed “at-risk” here receive less funding than do students in Denver. And Boggs said that “language and poverty shouldn’t be the markers” when determining district funding, anyway.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and have a conversation about what it takes to get each student what they need,” Boggs said. “I would support tax increases all day if it changes academic outcomes.”

But opponents like Kerr and Schafer believe the money will make a tremendous difference for kids across the state.

“As a state, Coloradans should pull together and do what we need to, to make sure everybody in Colorado gets what it needs to be successful,” Kerr said.

“I think it’s a moral choice,” Schafer said. “Are we going to educate all of our children, or just the wealthy children of the wealthy people? I’m taking care of all the people, regardless of where they live.”

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