This week, Governor John Hickenlooper enthusiastically supported Amendment 66, calling it the single most important education reform initiative in the history of the United States. School districts in the Roaring Fork Valley are also weighing in on the measure. Hyperbole aside, the amendment would change the way the state funds public schools. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, school administrators aren’t the only groups sharing opinions before voters head to the polls in November.
Some school administrators call Amendment 66, “Robin Hood” legislation. If voters approve it in November, it would benefit schools in poor areas more than wealthy communities like Aspen.
The measure asks voters to increase the personal income tax rate on two tiers. So, people making under $75,000 would be subject to a 5 percent tax and those earning more than $75,000 would see the tax rate rise to 5.9 percent. Backers say the average Colorado household would pay $133 per year.
The tax increase would raise $950 million for schools across the state to pay for things like at-risk preschool and all-day kindergarten, as well as English language learning programs and programs for poor children.
Representative Millie Hamner says the measure replaces an outdated school funding formula.
"The original school finance act was designed so that about 80 percent of school funding would come from local sources and 20 percent would come from state sources. Over the last couple of decades, that funding percentage has flipped, so that most of the burden to fund public schools is now at the state level."
Hamner, a Democrat, represents part of the Roaring Fork Valley and helped get Amendment 66 on the ballot.
Right now, schools receive state funding based on size, the number of at-risk students and cost of living wages for staff, among other things. This funding formula means the amount schools get varies widely.
Hamner says another reason some district’s coffers are full relative to their neighbors is because of successful local tax measures in their communities.
"Those kinds of factors have contributed to great disparities between how much districts have across the state, per pupil, to fund public education," she says.
She thinks Amendment 66 will even things out. Not everyone agrees.
"It’s almost a billion dollars, it’s $950 million projected for next year alone," says Bonnie Petersen.
She's the Executive Director of Club 20, an influential Western Slope civic group. Last month, the group’s board voted to oppose Amendment 66.
"Our members wanted to know and asked the question of the proponents of the bill, ‘help us understand why it takes almost a billion dollars to implement Senate Bill 213,’ and they (the board) were not satisfied that there were good answers that indicated why it would take so much for education," she says.
Besides concerns over the cost, Club 20 also disapproves of the measure’s two-tiered tax design. They’re concerned it will hit small businesses hard because some business owners pay their taxes on individual returns, so the education tax would apply to those business earnings.
In the education community, feelings are mixed.The initiative would, in essence, take money away from wealthier districts, like Aspen because it would eliminate cost of living allocations. As a result, the Aspen School District would likely ask voters in the future to make up for the loss. Still, the local school board is staying neutral on the issue. John Maloy is the superintendent.
"We believe, on the one hand, increasing taxes and improving schools and attracting outside investments and trying to restore funding to schools across the state of Colorado, is important. And, on the other hand, we also know that the long-term impact on our community is going to be somewhat significant: it’s going to require our taxpayers to pay more," Maloy says.
Under Amendment 66, he says local taxpayers will end up paying about $15 million to the State. In return, the Aspen district will only get between $250,000 and $400,000.
The winners would be schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. They stand to gain a lot more funding. Superintendent Diana Sirko says the district would receive an extra $4 million for things like helping at-risk and second-language students.
"What it does is allow us to begin to make some in-roads on the dollars that districts have lost over the last four years with inflation and make some in-roads on the equity issues across the state," says Sirko.
Editor of Education News Colorado, Todd Engdahl says, "It is kind of a watershed proposal for Colorado." He says he’s not surprised many groups are speaking up for and against the measure. He says most school districts are backing the measure.
"In the education community, even in districts that would not gain quite as much, there is a general feeling of support because many people feel it’s their best shot for recovering the school funding that was lost during the recession."
A poll out late last month by a republican-leaning pollster shows most voters are still uninformed about the Amendment, but would likely vote no if the election was held today.