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Hick: Educators need to make grassroots case for more money

Alan Petersime

Gov. John Hickenlooper told school administrators that something must be done to improve Colorado K-12 funding — he just wasn’t specific on what exactly that something should be.

School finance is usually Topic One when the governor appears before education advocacy groups, and that was the case Friday when he spoke to more than 700 people attending the summer conference of the Colorado Association of School Executives in Breckenridge.

“At some point we obviously are going to need to find additional resources and work on the negative factor and get more resources in the classroom,” the governor said, referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Doing that probably doesn’t include repealing the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the constitutional provision that requires voter approval of tax increases and sets limits on annual increases in state spending, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a will to get that passed,” Hickenlooper said, saying advocates need to “work within” TABOR to increase school funding.

Creating public support for TABOR changes that would increase school funding needs to start at the grassroots, he said.

“All of us can collect the stories and the narratives … in a way that it [school funding] becomes about real people. … We’ve got to collect stories of individual people that are affected in a very, very significant way” by inadequate funding. “Just giving statistical numbers and trends has been insufficient to drive people to make changes.”

Educators are close to their communities and can drive public attitudes, he said. “You know what kind of stories it’s going to take to change their opinions.”

The governor also said voters want to know what they’ll get from any ballot measure to increase school funding. “What are voters going to get for it, what are they going to see, what outcomes?”

Hickenlooper said “deliverables” could include things like “more art and music … it could be a longer school day.”

Asked about equity and the continuing squeeze on funding for low-income and at-risk students, the governor said, “That’s got to be included in whatever solution we come up with.”

The governor also asked for CASE members’ support in persuading the legislature to change the classification of a fee imposed on hospitals to help provide Medicaid funding. Even though the fee’s uses are earmarked, it counts against the state’s overall revenue limit and has helped push revenues to the level that requires taxpayer refunds.

Reclassifying the fee so it didn’t count against the limit could free tax revenue for other spending. “We would be able to take some pretty big bites out of the negative factor,” Hickenlooper said.

A proposal to change the fee died in the 2015 legislature, but the administration plans to try again next session.

Speaking after Hickenlooper finished, Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger said, “I heard the governor say he’s going to work with us to get more money for public schools. … He looks to use to create the network around the state to accomplish that.” He urged CASE members to get legislators into schools “so they understand the impact of inadequate funding.”

Messinger is co-chair of CASE’s lobbying committee and has been a prominent advocate for increased funding.

In 2005 voters approved a constitutional change that eased some of TABOR’s limits on state spending. But in 2013 voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $1 billion increase in income taxes to provide more school funding.

Various civic and business groups are discussing ideas for a possible 2016 ballot measure on school funding and other programs, but no definitive proposals have yet emerged.

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