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Panel: Mourning Amendment 66 clouds next steps for school finance

Too soon.

That’s the message from supporters of Amendment 66 who are still reeling from their loss at the ballot box earlier this month when voters rejected a tax increase in order to finance a school finance overhaul law.

The symbolic corpse of Amendment 66 is cold enough for a political autopsy — and there have been several (here, here and here) — but it’s still too early in the mourning process to articulate how the state should move on and implement some or all of the reforms outlined by the ballot measure and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 213, supporters said Tuesday night.

“I’m still so disappointed,” said Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum. “I loved the whole package. I don’t want to think about having to take it apart.”

Landrum was a panelist attempting to address how Colorado should move forward after voters patently rejected the tax increase by 66 percent.

If the amendment had passed Colorado’s flat income tax rate would have risen to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000. Income above $75,000 would have been taxed at 5.9 percent. The extra money would have funded the school finance overhaul and provided for such things like full day kindergarten and funding for charter schools, funneled money to impoverished school districts, and changed how districts calculate their student enrollment among other changes.

Colorado’s income tax remains at 4.63 percent.

Onlookers called the married amendment and legislation, authored by State Sen. Mike Johnston, who also sat on Tuesday’s panel, the most progressive school finance reform effort in the nation.

Now backers face the reality they “can’t do it all,” Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy said.

The panel, at the University of Colorado Denver’s School for Public Affairs, was produced by EdNews Colorado.

Johnston would not elaborate on any specific legislation he plans on authoring in the 2014 legislature. And other panelists were hesitant to single out one specific piece of the legislation they believe could stand and be funded in a silo.

“For me there is nothing I’d want to give up (in SB 213).” Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said. “The question has to be, ‘What are the steps to achieve the full vision?'”

Gut reaction after the failure of Amendment 66 was that funding for education initiatives in Colorado would lie in the hands of local, not statewide, electorates.

That sentiment was echoed at Tuesday’s forum. But many panelists fear that scenario will only further the financial gap between large urban districts and small rural ones.

“I don’t think we’ll get there,” Murphy said.

Part of relationship between Amendment 66 and SB 213 was more funding for small and rural school districts, which, as Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough said, “have cut to the bone.”

The Sheridan district was banking on money from the passage of the ballot question, Clough said.

“We can expect to see larger classes sizes. We’ve already lost our consumer and family studies program. The challenges will keep coming until we find a way to address this,” Clough said. “The smaller you get, the more you feel the pinch.”

Urban districts aren’t that better off, Superintendent Murphy and Colorado Children’s Campaign Vice President Reilly Pharo said.

“There are a lot of unknowns for all of us,” Murphy said. Reserve funds at large districts have been spent down since the Great Recession and supplemental money from federal grants are drying up too.

Colorado is one of a few states with a growing student population, and those students are likely to be English language learners and living in poverty Pharo said.

“How we serve underprivileged kids is paramount in the conversation,” she said.

The postmortem did not impress Jeffco mother Rachael Strickland.

She had hopped to hear more solutions from the panel. She opposed the amendment because of, what she called, attached strings.

“We should be funding our neighborhood schools,” she said. “I don’t agree with the distribution of the money to charter and online schools. When you have funding tied to reforms parents don’t support, you’re going to see us vote ‘no.'”

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