Amendment 39 Part Two: Kissing Money Goodbye

Suppose that the President, in an effort to boost his popularity, passes a plan to put 100,000 security guards in the nation’s high schools at federal expense.  Suppose Denver Public Schools wins a grant under the plan to have 200 new security guards put in its schools at federal expense.  Should it accept the grant?

Under existing law, the answer is easy, an unqualified yes.  If Amendment 39 passes, the answer would probably be no, not just in Denver, but in almost every Colorado school district.  Amendment 39’s impact on grants funding means that it would cut K-12 spending in the state, while providing Colorado taxpayers with no tax relief.

This is part two of a three part story on Amendment 39.  Part one is here.  Part three will look at the out-of-state influence and political calculations behind the measure.  Why would Amendment 39 cause a school district to turn down free money? 

Because its 65% calculation looks at the percentage of the total budget spent on the things it narrowly defines as instruction, not the percentage of the tax revenues it receives.

Every time a school district gets a dollar of grant money for something other than an instructional expense, the district is required to take 65 cents from other “non-instructional” expenses of the school and shift it to something else.  If the grant is for an “extra” like a security guard or an second school nurse, but makes it necessary to shift money from some essential non-instructional expense, like heating bills, to say, additional expenditures on librarians or teacher’s aides, the district has little choice but to say no to the grant.

This is no law school hypothetical.  If Amendment 39 passes, the Denver Public Schools “will probably have to turn down federal grants that fund instructional support for disabled students and student work-study programs”.

TABOR, which, like Amendment 39, regulates all revenues, rather than tax revenues, put pressure on higher education in Colorado in a similar way.  Tuition was counted as revenue, so rather than being able to compensate for declining state funding with tuition increases, it was forced to reduce spending on providing higher education to students. 

Because of declined federal grants like those that the Denver Public Schools will have to refuse, Amendment 39 cuts K-12 spending in the state, while providing Colorado taxpayers with no tax relief.

Because Amendment 39 is a constitutional amendment, changing the flaw in the proposal that prevents schools from accepting grants for non-instructional items, which even its proponents would probably not defend, is very difficult. 

Referendum J, the legislature’s alternative to Amendment 39, theoretically has similar problems, but requires spending allocation shifts in only 3 districts, has more flexibility built into it, and because it is a statute, it can be amended to address issues like imperilled federal grants.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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