Amendment 39 Part One: A School Board’s Nightmare

Amendment 39, which imposes arbitrary limits on what percentage of its budget school boards can spend on certain items, is one of the most disruptive fiscal measures to face voters in recent memory.  It is far more disruptive, for example, than the TABOR amendment which used the status quo as a baseline.  If passed, all but 11 of the 178 school districts in the state will have to slash spending on support staff.  The school districts not impacted are small, so more than 95% of students will be affected.

It is heading to passage by a 43-37 margin according to Denver Post-Mason Dixon poll taken less than two weeks before election day.  A Rocky Mountain News poll in early September had shown the measure with 58-25 support, so its net support has dropped from 33 percentage points to 6, with many more voters now undecided.  But, Amendment 39 still has enough support to leave school board members across the state biting their nails.

Every newspaper in the state that has gone on record on Amendment 39 opposes it.  Impact would vary by District, since local school districts set budgets based upon local needs.  In the Denver Public Schools the cut in “non-instructional” spending would be 26.8%.  In one rural Baca County school district, it would mean a 45% cut.  Forty-five school districts, about one in four, will have to make cuts of 25% of more.  Cuts would be phased in over time.

Cuts will be particularly deep for support staff.  This is because a significant share of non-instructional spending, like school heating bills and having a principal in each school, is effectively impossible for a district to cut, and in the case of expenses related to tests like the CSAPs spending is mandated by federal and state laws.  Even non-instructional staff like cafeteria workers, who might seem a likely target of cuts, are mandated by federal law for districts that participate in the school lunch program, as every public school district in Colorado does, although staffing for the program might be slimmed at the expense of food quality in some districts.

Compliance costs threaten to force cuts even in at least four of the small districts that currently meet the mandate.  Creede School District in Mineral County, Cripple Creek School District in Teller County, Woodland Park in Teller County, and Lamar School District in Prowers County, all spend less than 66% of their budgets on “instruction” as defined in Amendment 39.

As explained in the General Assemblies official guidebook to statewide ballot measures, called the “Blue Book”, the proposal would require local school districts to cut $278 million from “non-instructional” spending and shift it to “instructional” spending as defined by Amendment 39.

In contrast, Referendum J, proposed by the legislature as an alternative to Amendment 39, which follows essentially the same structure as Amendment 39, but defines the expenses classified as instructional for budget purposes, would require reallocations in only three of the 178 school districts in the State.  Those three district would have to reallocate a little more than a million dollars.