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Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Nicholas Garcia

Why a key piece of legislation to fund Colorado schools is on hold

Funding for Colorado’s schools is caught in the political crosshairs at the statehouse with only 23 days left for lawmakers to complete their work this year.

Republican leaders of the state Senate called on House Democrats Monday to finish their work on the budget so the legislature can move on to flushing out specifics on how much money each of the state’s schools districts will receive.

But Democrats who control the House say they want to hold off on passing legislation needed to balance the budget while the Senate considers bills that could alleviate some financial pressure.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, is the sponsor of this year’s School Finance Act, an annual bill that sets how much each school district receives per pupil.

Hill said he won’t move forward with the school funding bill until the House is finished considering two pieces of legislation that must be passed to balance the state’s budget.

The state’s budget locks in funding for the education department but the annual school finance bill spells out how much each district receives.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” Hill told reporters Monday morning. “Constitutionally, we have to fund our schools. And we can’t do that until the House finishes up the package of the budget.”

GOP leaders admitted they could introduce the funding bill at any time. For example, last year’s bill was introduced at the same time as the state’s budget. But given the complexity of this year’s state budget, leaders said they want more certainty before introducing this year’s school finance bill.

“The numbers don’t mean anything until we balance the budget and I refuse to do that on the backs of our school districts,” Hill said.

This year’s budget calls for a modest increase in school funding. On average, schools will receive about $185 more per student than this year.

That doesn’t mean the bigger picture is bright for school funding, though. The state is already not fulfilling its obligations to fund schools, and the shortfall is projected to increase by about $45 million, to $881 million. That’s because the state doesn’t have enough money to cover all of its costs.

Hill said his funding bill could include more money for rural schools and resources to address the state’s teacher shortage.

House Democrats said they’re waiting for the Senate to take up two bills that could free up more money in this year’s state budget, including a bill that would send $400 million to rural schools.

“With a bill addressing the hospital provider fee working its way through the Senate, and multiple transportation funding measures in different stages of the legislative process, we need to ensure that the entire budget package brings our budget into balance,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “All of the bills have to work together, and we want to see how the bills currently in the Senate progress.”

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who is expected to co-sponsor the school funding bill, said it’s time to introduce the bill.

“We need to move forward,” she said. “There are a lot of balls in the air. And these bills are all intertwined. But I’m hopeful.”