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Superintendents draw line on school funding

A letter signed by 171 of the state’s 178 school superintendents calls for the legislature to more than double the proposed increase in next year’s state funding for K-12 education.

The superintendents are asking lawmakers to add $275 million to the $241 million that the proposed budget allocates for the 2014-15 school year.

The letter, sent Tuesday to Gov. John Hickenlooper and all 100 legislators, specifically asks that lawmakers “buy down” the negative factor by that amount. The negative factor is the device lawmakers use to reduce school funding from what otherwise would have been required by state funding formulas.

Districts, administrators and teacher groups have been pushing hard during this legislative session to reduce the negative factor and to oppose funding earmarked for specific education programs.

The superintendents’ letter represents a ramping up of that effort.

Hickenlooper’s proposed $5.7 billion K-12 budget for 2014-15 basically makes no dent in the negative factor, now estimated at $1 billion. And a large number of bills proposing earmarked spending already have been introduced in the legislative.

The superintendents’ letter doesn’t reference earmarked spending, but it does request a meeting with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders. The letter also suggests that an unspecified amount of the $275 million be devoted to increasing support for at-risk students.

Discussions among superintendents and other education groups have stepped up in the last couple of weeks. Superintendents met with a group of lawmakers late last week, and the negative factor was the top issue discussed during a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives last Friday.

“We understand that you can’t get a billion back in one year,” Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger told that group. Messinger said that the growing pressure for $275 million means that “both parties are paying attention to this conversation…I don’t think it’s impossible” to persuade the legislature. Messinger is one of the leaders of the superintendents’ group.

Lobbyists and others connected to the effort also say they feel lawmakers are paying more attention to the issue than they were earlier in the session, when legislative leaders reportedly were cool to the idea of buying down the negative factor.

But advocates still face challenges in making their case.

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was among lawmakers who met with superintendents last week. “We’re certainly going to look at doing something [about the negative factor], but certainly nothing anywhere near the amount the superintendents are proposing,” he told Chalkbeat Colorado.

Attempts to reduce the negative factor also conflict with Hickenlooper administration budgetary goals, including increasing the state reserves, paying back some cash funds the legislature “borrowed” from in prior years and maintaining a healthy balance in the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used to supplement basic school support and also fund special programs.

And Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a leading figure on education policy, also has designs on any extra education money that may be lying around, working with Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. He’s been working on a bill that would increase funding for kindergarten and English language learners and well as provide money for changing the state’s enrollment counting method, school district financial reporting and implementation of education reform laws. (See this story for more details.)

It’s likely the school funding debate won’t play out until late March, after quarterly state revenue forecasts are issued and when the main state budget and annual school funding bills are being finalized.

Rising frustration about the negative factor also reporting has revived discussions among some superintendents and lawyers about a possible lawsuit challenging use of the device. A possible legal theory behind a suit is that the factor violates Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by inflation and enrollment every year.

Those involved in those discussions are reluctant to talk about them, as those pushing for reduction of the negative factor are primarily interested right now in reaching some agreement with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders.

Read the superintendents’ letter here.

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