Coloradans will have a chance to better understand how the state’s public schools are spending tax dollars Friday when the state education department launches a new website that tracks annual financial data.
Commissioned by state lawmakers in 2014, the website reports how much money each school and district collects from federal, state and local taxes, and donations — including those given to charter schools.
The website also charts how each school spends the money on a long list of categories such as personnel, technology and food programs.
The site is the latest development in a multi-year effort to better explain Colorado’s complex school funding system and how schools use their tax dollars. Schools and districts have been required to publish budgets, credit card statements and check registers since 2010.
The new financial details and website put Colorado ahead of most states in school financial reporting.
All states will soon be required to submit school-level financial data to the federal government. The new and rarely discussed mandate is part of the nation’s education laws, which were updated in 2015 with the Every Student Succeed Act.
The financial data in Colorado — and soon across the nation — is a boon for civil rights and education activists who have long argued that poor communities are being short changed by wealthier white communities that have political clout.
“This level of information will show us how school boards divide up their mega budgets,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance policies. “And if it’s not equitable, then schools should be engaged in knowing that and speaking up on their behalf.”
Colorado is one of a few states that allocates more money for students with greater learning needs. However, inequities still exist in the state’s funding system.
Part of the inequity stems from mill levy overrides. Those are local voter-approved tax increases that wealthier school districts such as Cherry Creek and Boulder have little trouble passing.
But voters in school districts such as Greeley and Pueblo, which both serve large populations of poor students, have never approved such an increase.
One shortcoming of the site, Roza said, is the dearth of academic data.
Student data “should be paired with spending,” she said. “You can’t look at outcomes in the absence of costs and you can’t look at costs in the absence of outcomes.”
The legislation that established the new website did not call for academic data to be part of the website. State education department officials said they expect the website to continue to evolve after it becomes public.
One aspect of the site that could prove popular is a feature that allows side-by-side comparisons of how schools and districts spend their money. That worries some who work in education, however.
“It’s fun to do the comparisons,” said Diane Doney, chief financial officer for Littleton Public Schools, which helped the state test the website. “But I really think there is a danger when you start comparing raw numbers and try to make some sort of conclusion about what you’re seeing.”
Doney stressed caution in making comparisons for two reasons.
First, the website does not include student demographic information or other reasons why one school district might receive more money on a per student basis. Small rural school districts, for example, often receive twice the amount of money per student from the state that a large urban district receives.
Second, schools and districts allocate money in different ways. One school district might budget all of its reading coaches at the district level, while a nearby district might allocate that cost at the school level, Doney said.
Users of the website should call their school leader or district finance department if they have questions the website can’t answer, she said.
The website launches about three weeks before a group of lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating how the state should update its school funding system. Part of the conversation is expected to be whether Colorado is spending enough on its schools, or whether schools need to spend tax dollars differently.
Meanwhile, another coalition advocating for more money for schools is working on a potential 2018 ballot initiative.
“I do think the website will start the conversation that will be healthy for parents and constituents,” said Jennifer Okes, executive director of school finance at the Colorado Department of Education. “For the most part, schools are making really good use of their limited resources. This will show where they really are investing their dollars.”
On Friday, the site will contain financial information from the 2015-2016 school year. The site will be updated each year before July 1 with the preceding school year’s finances.