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K-12 would take $332 million hit

State support of school districts would drop $332 million compared to current levels under a 2011-12 budget proposal announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper this afternoon.

Funding of state colleges and universities would drop to only $519 million, compared to the $555 million originally requested for next year.

Current total program funding for K-12 schools is about $5.4 billion, $3.4 billion from the state and $2 billion from local tax revenues. That equates to some $6,811 average funding per pupil, although actual amounts vary by district depending on a variety of factors.

Average per-pupil funding would drop to $6,326 under the governor’s plan.

Because of the budget crunch, the 2010 legislature approved funding lower than the $5.8 million that would have been required had the full Amendment 23 formula been applied. About a quarter of school funding is allocated based on what are called “factors” – district size, numbers of at-risk students and personnel costs.

The governor’s plan is $836 million below what full funding would be.

The legislature last year created a new “budget stabilization factor,” a mathematical device that allows lawmakers to reduce the amount of money spent on other factors and thereby giving wide flexibility in cutting K-12 spending.

Last year’s school finance law also determined that Amendment 23’s requirements that school spending must increase annually by inflation and enrollment apply only to base school funding, about 75 percent of the total.

Even before the law was changed last year, the legislature had been shaving school funding in response to budget pressures. In 2009-10 total program funding was about $5.6 billion, not the $5.7 billion called for by the old interpretation of Amendment 23. Average per-pupil funding was $7,075.

Total program was about $5.3 billion in 2008-09, just a few million dollars under the A23 level. The per-pupil average was $6,871.

School districts have responded to the tightening of state aid with a variety of tactics, including use of reserves, pay freezes, some layoffs and increased class sizes. Districts already are planning their 2011-12 budgets, and the announcement of Hickenlooper’s budget gives them a clearer target to shoot for.

However, the final decision on the budget rests with legislature and won’t be made until sometime in April, after official quarterly revenue forecasts are released in late March.

Some lawmakers politely pushed back at the idea of school cuts during the governor’s meeting with the Joint Budget Committee. One item that legislators may target is Hickenlooper’s plan for a 4 percent reserve, rather than the 2 percent sometimes used in tight years.

The executive branch is required to submit a budget to the JBC by Nov. 1, so outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter did that last year.

While Ritter’s plan, based on September 2010 revenue forecasts, was $365 million below full A23 levels, it basically proposed hold-the-line total spending for next year. The state share would have increased to cover declines in local revenues. Average per-pupil funding would have been about $6,782. The Ritter plan wouldn’t have covered enrollment increases. (See story about Ritter proposal.)

Ritter’s higher education plan would have provided $555 million to state colleges and universities and required them to eat the loss of $89 million in federal stimulus funds. State tax support is only about a quarter of higher ed revenue, with the rest supplied by tuition.

With state funding of $550 to $555 million, most colleges feel they can keep resident tuition increases to 9 percent for 2011-12.

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