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Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015. Photo by Nic Garcia

Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

Nicholas Garcia

Charter schools make bid for more local funding

Charter school advocates Thursday launched an effort to gain what they call a “more equitable” share of local funding through two bills to be introduced in the state Senate.

“The issue is very simple, it is the equitable treatment of our children,” said Rep. Lang Sias, R-Arvada, one of the sponsors of the legislation.

At issue is how districts distribute the revenue they gain from additional property taxes they raise beyond the base taxes used to pay for basic school operations.

Many charters have long complained that some districts don’t give them a share of those extra taxes, known as mill levy overrides.

Speaking at a Capitol news conference, Sen. Owen Hill claimed that 50 percent to 60 percent of override money isn’t distributed equitably, costing charters $20 million to $25 million. The Colorado Springs Republican will be a Senate sponsor of the bills. Sias claimed two-thirds of districts don’t equitably share funds.

One of the proposed measures would require that most of that override money be distributed to charters on a per-student basis.

Overrides are a popular tool for districts trying to cope with tight state funding in recent years because such revenues provide money on top of base school budgets. The size of overrides varies widely among districts because of differences in property wealth and voter appetites for tax increases.

Nearly 120 of the state’s 178 districts have overrides of various types, raising a total of $860 million this school year. Current basic school funding is about $6.2 billion.

Districts are allowed to seek overrides for general operating expenses, transportation costs, facilities and technology and full-day kindergarten. Bond issues to pay off construction costs are paid off by other, earmarked property tax increases that have been approved by voters.

Under the proposed bill, charters wouldn’t receive override funds for programs they don’t offer, so a charter high school wouldn’t get a cut of a district’s extra kindergarten funding.

Three education groups announced their opposition Thursday afternoon.

“Colorado is a local control state and these funding decisions should be made at the local level,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger. “Many districts do in fact share revenue with their local charter schools and have positive relationships with them. A one-size-fits-all state mandate not only doesn’t make sense, but could actually result in less funds for some schools in which the revenue sharing already exceeds a new mandated dollar amount.”

He was speaking for the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of Schools Boards and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

The second bill is expected to contain a laundry list of other provisions charters want, including:

  • Formal notification from districts when vacant buildings and land are available.
  • Elimination of the current requirement that charters be open for five years before they can apply for state Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, funds.
  • Expanding use of funds charters currently receive for building needs so that they also can be used for maintenance.
  • Permitting charters in the state’s highest rating category to submit improvement plans every other year rather than annually.
  • Streamlining of audit requirements for charters with multiple campuses.
  • Requiring districts to provide more detailed accounting of services they provide to charters.

A summary of the legislation also says the bill will include a proposal for more equitable funding of schools supervised by the state Charter School Institute but provides no details except that the bill won’t seek additional funding for institute schools this year.

Legislative politics around charters are complicated and aren’t strictly partisan. Some past charter legislation has had bipartisan sponsorship and support. Republican members are considered to be more uniformly charter friendly, while Democrats are more divided.

In addition to Sias and Hill, Democratic Rep. Angela Williams of Denver is a key backer of the bills.

She said the state’s charter students shouldn’t have to “attend schools where funding is not provided on an equitable basis.”

The original plan was for Williams to introduce a single charter bill in the Democratic-controlled House.

“We’ve shifted our strategy a bit,” said Hill, saying he believes the proposals might have a better chance for bipartisan backing in the Senate, where the GOP has a one-vote majority.

Breaking the proposals into two bills also reduces the risk that irreconcilable differences over one issue would sink a single bill.

The issue is expected to be heavily lobbied, with groups such as the charter league, Democrats for Education Reform and Colorado Succeeds – a business group that backs education reform – working to get the bills passed. Lobbyists for CASB, CASE, the Colorado Education Association and individual districts likely will work for changes in the measures.

On big issues like this superintendents and school board members often lobby their local legislators directly.

One part of Williams’ original draft bill drew strong criticism from school districts and reportedly won’t be in the Senate legislation. That proposal would have given a charter applicant the right to appeal to the state if it felt a school district wasn’t negotiating in “good faith.”

Hill said the bills would be introduced “in the next couple of days.” There are only 34 days remaining before the session’s mandatory adjournment date. In addition to the coming charter bills, lawmakers still face decisions on a major student data privacy bill, the 2016-17 school finance act and two hospital provider fee bills that could have implications for future school funding.