Colorado rural school funding at risk next year, representatives are seeking solutions
As the voter-approved nicotine tax money approaches its sunset, rural school districts across Colorado have been left wondering where this necessary funding will come from.
With the impending funding scheduled to sunset in July, rural school district superintendents and advocacy groups are looking to get ballot language passed that secures the funding.
On its list of 2023 legislative priorities, the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance is seeking a continuation of the funding unless the education finance formula is revised to ensure equitable school funding.
In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis and Democrats initially backed Proposition EE with the intention of paving a future for early childhood education for the state.
Additionally, part of the money generated by the nicotine tax went to rural school systems, while developments took place in expanding early education. Set forth by Proposition EE, an incremental funding plan made it so the money would be introduced into preschools in 2023 and then assist health care programs in 2024.
For many school leaders, the problems that accompany adequately and equitably funding rural schools have become more evident as the sunset date approaches.
Steamboat Springs School District, Hayden School District, and South Routt School District all receive money from Proposition EE, but the smaller school systems will take a bigger hit.
Where do rural school funding issues stem from?
Colorado has a complex history with funding its schools, and data shows Colorado currently ranks 35th in spending and 31st in funding nationwide.
Modern issues with school funding mostly stem from a decision made by the legislature following the Great Recession to siphon money away from education funds to put toward other uses. This tactic is now known as the budget stabilization factor, or the negative factor.
Colorado’s school funding formula takes into account that it costs more to educate students in rural districts by making adjustments to per-pupil funding based on a variety of factors like the size of the district, the cost of living and whether the district is in an “at risk” community. The formula does not take into account the number of students living in poverty or the needs of students who are learning English.
Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, said the problem is that the budget stabilization factor removes money from these adjustments at a flat-rate percentage, which hurts schools that receive larger adjustments more.
“The adjustments to alleviate negative impacts of the negative factor do not necessarily promote fairness,” Weil said.
The budget stabilization factor has exacerbated the fact that there is just not enough funding for schools and made it worse for many rural schools. Every year, the legislature appropriates a certain amount for rural schools to help offset this. Weil said these one-time dollars provide Band-Aid solutions and do not allow superintendents to budget efficiently.
“Superintendents get this money, and there is no guarantee it will be there next year,” Weil said. “It has school officials questioning whether or not they have the capacity to hire a new teacher and uphold their salary.”
Over the last two years, this money came from Proposition EE. With Proposition EE’s money heading toward preschools, rural schools now do not know where funding will come from next.
What are rural superintendents worried about?
In the first increment of Proposition EE, the 2020-21 fiscal year, it brought $25 million to small and large rural school systems. Hayden received $131,000, Steamboat received $376,000 and South Routt $101,000.
The high cost of living in Routt County, combined with the rural status of schools with small populations, does not always compel educators to come and work there. That especially rings true for Routt’s most rural districts, Hayden and South Routt.
“This past year we got $153,000 out of Proposition EE,” said Christy Sinner, superintendent of the Hayden School District. “That’s truly two full-time positions that we are going to have to figure out how to absorb, or go into deficit spending, or try to find some grants or some different ways to alleviate that so we can keep moving forward and stay competitive.”
South Routt’s schools utilize this money to supplement salaries and benefits as well and share similar fears about losing it.
“We use most of Proposition EE money for salaries and benefits so we can increase our base salary for teachers in an effort to be more competitive and provide livable wages,” said Kirk Henwood, superintendent of the South Routt School District.
South Routt also uses this funding for professional learning, a difficult feat for rural schools that are far away from the major cities, which house most of the state’s education agencies, consultants and professional learning experts.
“Not only is it more difficult to convince a consultant to travel hours for a professional learning day, but it is also more expensive,” Henwood said. “We pay travel, hotel and food costs for these professionals, which is not something that schools in and near Denver have to do.”
Perhaps the most obvious solution would be to eliminate the budget stabilization factor, something legislators have said they hope to do in the coming years. Still, Weil said that won’t eliminate the problem.
“Eliminating the budget stabilization factor would be a nice start, but it would not address the needs that our districts have, especially when it comes to competitive rates for educators,” Weil said.
Another solution could include continuing to fight for supplemental funding for rural schools, but like eliminating the budget stabilization factor, this would provide another temporary solution.
Voters must approve the reallocation of funding toward rural schools as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Even then, the current funding model with the budget stabilization factor continues to work against rural public schools.
The issue remains on the agenda of Routt County’s representatives.
“Rural schools have faced funding challenges that make it harder for them to provide critical services to students that we know are essential for their education, such as after-school activities, tutoring and so much more,” said state Rep. Meghan Lukens, who was a teacher before being elected to the Colorado House in November. “There are legislative efforts underway to make changes through the school finance formula that ensure we support our rural schools.”
Kit Geary is the county, public safety and education reporter. To reach her, call 970-871-4229 or email her at kgeary@SteamboatPilot.com.
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