Jefferson County: Officials back school funding question

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Prominent Jefferson County officials tried to convince attendees at a Sept. 21 Golden town hall meeting to support a November ballot question that seeks $950 million in new taxes to fund an overhaul to the state’s school finance system.

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson fielded questions about the ballot measure from a small audience, along with state Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and state Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, whose legislative district includes Jefferson County. The three women are backers of Amendment 66, a measure that will expand school programs and change how Colorado schools are funded.

“This is one of the most important ballot measures we’ve had in a long time,” said Schafer, who also told the audience that passage of Amendment 66 is vital because Colorado public schools have lost “about $1 billion in funding over the last four years.”

Amendment 66 would fund the changes to the School Finance Act that were put in place through Senate Bill 213 earlier this year.

The measure would create full-day kindergarten for all Colorado students and free preschool for at-risk students. It also would provide more resources for English language learners, as well as for students who are in “gifted and talented” programs. The measure would pump more money into public schools, while creating a more equitable system by which school districts are funded, supporters say.

Stevenson said Jeffco schools would get at least $71 million in new funding, if Amendment 66 passes. That would enable the district to return to 2010 funding levels, she said.

Stevenson said that Jeffco voters should not view last year’s passage of a mill levy increase as having solved the district’s budget issues.

The revenue raised by initiatives 3A and 3B allowed the district to prevent significant budget cuts, but its funding still falls about $50 million short of levels from a few years ago, she said.

Stevenson also said that Colorado’s tax burden would remain in the bottom half among other states in the country, even if the measure passes. And the superintendent said that it’s important for Jeffco teachers to get pay raises, something that hasn’t happened in five years.

“I really feel like we have a priority as a community to say that our teacher salaries are important because we want them in our community,” Stevenson said.

A permanent tax increase

Senate Bill 213 was one of the most contentious bills debated during this year’s legislative session, and it’s one that failed to garner a single Republican vote in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. The bill was later signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Opponents say that the Amendment 66 funding measure is a nearly-$1 billion tax hike that seeks to throw money at schools, but does not put in place any true school reforms.

If passed, Amendment 66 would result in a permanent income tax increase, without a sunset provision. Stevenson acknowledges that Jeffco taxpayers will pay about $114-124 million in taxes, but only between 52 and 83 percent of those dollars will actually find their way to Jeffco schools, she said.

“Anybody who does the math, that’s accurate,” she said.

The ratio of taxes-to-district funding is one of the concerns that is troubling Diane Borden of Golden, who attended the town hall.

“I want to make sure the money that’s being taken out of their paycheck is directly going to our schools and the needs of our district,” she said. “I just don’t believe it’s going to work as well as you’re thinking it will. I know you have good intentions.”

Stevenson also acknowledged that the new funding would not mean a reduction in the amount of fees that parents pay for certain Jeffco school programs and services.

However, she points out that the district has always assisted poor children with school supplies and services. One audience member said that is the wrong time to ask taxpayers for this kind of money, given the current economy.

“The economic downturn doesn’t warrant taking more of my money,” said one man, who left before the meeting ended. “We don’t have it at the moment, and I don’t see prospects of booming economic improvements in the near future.”

But Pat Yingst of Golden, who is a supporter of Amendment 66, said that voters need to be thinking about the community’s future.

“A big problem we have is the inability to think long-term,” she said. “It seems a lot of people do not want to think about that.”

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