School Finance

Lots of ways to raise your taxes

The 24 proposed ballot measures that would raise state income taxes to boost funding for K-12 education suggest a wide and bewildering variety of ways to do that.

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.Four of the proposals would keep the state’s current flat tax system but raise the rate to 5.35 percent from the current 4.63 percent. The other 20 plans would create progressive income taxes with either two tiers or five. Those suggest larger percentage increases in higher income brackets.

Some of the measures would tinker with existing constitutional structures, including Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in base K-12 funding.

Despite the variations, most of the proposed constitutional amendments would arrive at about the same destination – an increase of around $1 billion in new revenue. All new revenue would be earmarked for education and couldn’t be spent on other programs. The state currently collects about $5.2 billion a year from individual income taxes.

Proposal texts
  • Find links to proposal texts on this page. Colorado Forum proposals are numbers 13-28; Great Education Colorado measures are 30-37.

The proposals are driven by a coalition of education, civic and business groups as part of a campaign to both modernize the state’s school funding formula and also increase revenue for K-12 schools. The measure that would change the formula, Senate Bill 13-213, is working its way through the Senate. (See this EdNews story for the bill’s current status.)

But because the state constitution forbids the legislature from raising taxes itself, the additional revenues required by SB 13-213 would have to be approved by voters. (If the bill passes but voters reject additional taxes the new formula wouldn’t go into effect.)

Sixteen of the tax increases are proposed by Colorado Forum, a group of business and civic leaders that works on constitutional and fiscal reform. The other eight are proposed by Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for increased school funding. Both are part of a larger coalition called the School Finance Partnership, which has been working on school reform and funding since the spring of 2011.

“We are very hopeful we can get something done” to improve school support, said Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum.

Why were so many plans filed?

Trying to amend the state constitution is a tricky legal process dictated by complicated rules governing the scope and wording of proposed ballot measures. So groups sometimes file multiple versions so they have backups in case one version is successfully challenged. (Disputes over ballot measures periodically end up before the Colorado Supreme Court.)

Drafting ballot measures also is a political process, and different versions often are filed to acknowledge the priorities of individual interest groups within a coalition and to create alternatives whose potential popularity can be tested in public opinion surveys and focus groups. A key reason why all the measures would generate about $1 billion in revenue is because previous polling and focus groups indicated that’s about the most the public would support.

Lisa Weil
Lisa Weil

“We wanted to make sure there are as many options as possible,” said Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education.

Proposals had to be filed by March 22 to be considered for the November 2013 ballot, so Colorado Forum and Great Education covered their bets by filing multiple versions. (The two groups are cooperating, not competing in the effort.)

“We are very appreciative of everything that Colorado Forum is doing,” Weil said. “We are looking forward to working with them.”

After the measures undergo multiple reviews that begin Thursday and run through late April, a single measure is expected to be chosen for submission to voters. Proponents will have to gather at least 86,105 required signatures by Aug. 5.

“People are chomping at the bit to work on an increase for education,” said Liane Morrison, executive director of Great Education.

What the proposals would do

How it all works

  • See the box below for a more detailed explanation of how the proposals would change current parts of the constitution

In addition to various tax rates, the 24 plans offer different mechanisms for using the additional revenue.

The 16 Colorado Forum plans sort into four groups. Every proposal would raise taxes and also create what’s called the Education Achievement Fund, which would receive the new revenues and be used to fund various elements of the SB 13-213 formula. Here are the other features of the four groups:

  • In addition to raising taxes, a first group also would earmark 43 percent of the state general fund every year for K-12 education and also change another section of the constitution that currently acts to drive down school district property tax collections.
  • A second group would raise taxes and stabilize district property tax collections.
  • A third group would raise taxes and include the 43 percent earmarking of the general fund for schools.
  • The fourth group would just raise taxes and put the additional revenue in the achievement fund.

Revenue raised by the four plans would range from about $811 million to just over $1 billion, Klapper said, although she cautioned those estimates might be low. (Legislative staff will calculate estimated revenues for each proposal during the review process.)

In addition to different tax rates, the main variation among the eight Great Education plans is that some would give education an added boost. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights section of the constitution requires that certain surplus revenues be refunded to taxpayers. (State revenues haven’t grown enough in recent years to trigger that.) Some versions of the proposals would instead transfer such surpluses to K-12 spending.

The Great Education proposals would use the existing State Education Fund as the holding account for new education revenue.

And there are more proposals

Three other proposals related to SB 13-213 and school funding also have been filed.

One proposes putting the original text of SB 13-213 to the voters as a change to state law. It was filed by Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Tamara Ward, CEO of Colorado Concern, a group of business executives.

Brough said last week, “Our rationale for filing the title was to protect our ability to ensure SB 213 is preserved … if the bill doesn’t pass or changes significantly” in the legislature. “Our title was filed to address … the reality that the fate of SB 213 at the Capitol is very uncertain. If SB 213 passes and is signed by the governor our title is not needed. If none of the tax increases go forward in 2013, our ballot title is not needed.”

And two measures were filed by tea party activist Steve Dorman. One would increase income taxes by only .0001 percent to fund SB 13-213, and one would raise state sales taxes by 10 percent to fund teacher pensions.

Education & the constitution

The state constitution currently includes three elements that affect education funding.

Amendment 23 – This provision requires that base K-12 funding increase by enrollment growth and inflation every year. Additional school funding isn’t covered by that requirement, and the legislature actually has cut school funding in recent years because of tight state revenues. It’s estimated that school support is about $1 billion below what it would have been without those cuts.

Some of the Colorado Forum proposals would repeal the A23 multiplier and replace it with a requirement that 43 percent of the state general fund be devoted to K-12 every year.

Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) – This part of the constitution sets limits on state revenue and spending increases and requires voter approval of new taxes. Several of the proposals would create significant exemptions from TABOR for education spending.

Gallagher Amendment – This section was intended to set ratios between business and residential property taxes. In combination with TABOR, which was passed later, it’s had the effect of driving down residential assessment rates and shifting a higher percentage of school costs to the state. Some of the Colorado Forum proposals include a provision that would create a floor below which residential assessment rates couldn’t drop.

And … the single subject rule – An unavoidable hurdle for ballot measure proponents is what’s called the “single subject rule,” which limits the content of a measure and requires the full content be listed in a measure’s title. More than one past measure has fallen afoul of this rule.

Proponents of the school tax measure believe their single subject is “school finance” and that they can pass the test. “We’re hopeful it will fall under that single subject,” said Trey Rogers, a lawyer who is working with proponents.

Sticking with a single subject is the reason why proponents want to tinker with the Gallagher Amendment only as it applies to school taxes. The fluctuation of property taxes for counties, cities and special districts wouldn’t be changed.


Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for hundreds of educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.