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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

Should Colorado charter schools get a share of local tax increases? Some Colorado lawmakers think so.

Teachers at the Ricardo Flores Magón Academy charter school in Westminster have been forced to take four days of unpaid leave to help balance this year’s budget.

The office manager is rationing paper because of a budget that is on “a shredded shoestring,” as school leader Kaye Taavialma puts it. If the vacuum breaks, Taavialma doesn’t know how she’ll replace it.

Such financial challenges are not unusual at many charter schools in Colorado, and yet another attempt to share more local tax revenue with charters is scheduled to get its first legislative test Thursday. (UPDATE: The education committee will take testimony on the bill, but will likely not vote until next week.)

Senate Bill 61 would require the state’s school districts to share a portion of locally approved tax increases with charter schools, which receive state funding but operate independently of the traditional school district system. The combined total school districts would be required to send to the state’s charter schools according to a legislative report: $94.4 million.

The potential impact on districts — and traditional district-run schools also feeling a budget pinch — makes this one of the most hotly contested education bills on this session’s agenda.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, also requires lawmakers to find as much as $13 million to send to charter schools authorized by the state.

Supporters of the bill frame the issue around equity. They say that for too long, the state’s school districts have failed in providing fair funding to charter schools, which educate more than 108,000 Colorado students — many of them Latino and from low-income homes.

“Sadly, many school boards are saying we’re not going to fund our student fairly and equally,” Hill said in a recent interview. “It’s our job to rectify it.”

But critics of the legislation say the issue is a local one, and that such a mandate would thwart the will of the voters who approved the tax increases, known as mill levy overrides.

“The biggest issue is that boards of education make a contract with voters when they pass a mill levy,” said Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I think local school boards pass those mill levies often consulting with charters. This bill is an attempt for a one-size fits-all and there are 178 stories out there in Colorado.”

Mill levy overrides have become an increasingly popular way to supplement school districts’ budgets as the state has not made significant headway in closing a $830 million school funding shortfall.

School districts may ask voters to increase their property taxes to fund specific programs such as after-school tutoring or teacher training. Under current state law, school districts are not required to share the funding with charter schools.

The proposed legislation only mandates that districts share revenue if charters have comparable programs to what voters approved. For example, if voters approved a tax increase to provide free full-day kindergarten, a charter school can only get a portion of that money if it offers full-day kindergarten.

According to an estimate by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, 11 of the state’s 178 districts equitably share their overrides with charters.

This isn’t the first time the issue has been debated.

Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate passed with bipartisan support a similar bill introduced by Hill. But a committee in the House, controlled by Democrats, spiked the bill.

The legislature is split along the same party lines this year. But Hill said he has hopes that a new crop of lawmakers and leadership in the House could provide a lifeline for the bill.

One freshman lawmaker who could be influential in the bill’s debate is Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. Bridges was endorsed this fall by Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit that advocates for charter schools.

If the bill is assigned to the House Education Committee, which Bridges sits on, he could provide the necessary vote to advance the bill.

Bridges said he has not yet read the legislation.

“I’ll take a close look at the bill when it comes to the House,” he said in a text message. “Whatever happens with the bill, charters and districts should work together to make sure every kid gets a great education.”

Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has also not made her position on the legislation publicly known. In an interview before the session, she said that she was focused on the “big picture” of school funding.

A new wrinkle in the debate this year will be shrinking revenue from property taxes.

By one estimate, property taxes that pay for local schools — both district-run and charter — could shrink by as much as $136 million. That means the state must make up the difference, or schools across the state will be faced with making drastic cuts.

Cook, of the school board association, said the group’s position on the bill does not mean its members are anti-charter, but that all schools need more money and the forecast for the next school year is creating uncertainty.

“Charter schools very well may need more money. Neighborhood schools need more money,” he said. “The system of funding just doesn’t work right now.”

Hill acknowledges the state’s funding system is flawed. He’s part of a group of lawmakers working on reforming the way schools are paid for. But he said he believes lawmakers are a few years away from reaching a compromise, and charter schools should not have to wait.

“It’s time for us to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Whatever public school you go to we’re going to treat you fairly and equally in that region,’” he said.