Fact check: No, Amendment 66 will not cut rural school district funding

Last week Grand Junction’s KKCO 11 News reported that as many as twenty rural school districts in Colorado will see school funding drop if the Amendment 66 education tax proposal passes on Election Day.

“If it passes, a formula which calculates the number of at-risk youth, students who are learning English as a second language, and the size factor of the district, will leave the DeBeque School District with $43,000 less than it gets now for 122 students,” said the report.

The report has been touted by opponents of the measure to bolster a narrative that pits rural mostly conservative voters against urban mostly liberal voters.

“Denver Senator Mike Johnston wrote the bill to help the funding of his schools,” said Amendment 66 opponent and former Colorado Springs Senator Keith King.

Problem is, the report was flubbed and the narrative isn’t true.

KKCO got the facts badly wrong, according to Damion LeeNatali, the political director for Colorado Commits to Kids, the campaign working to pass the amendment. Like every other district in Colorado, DeBeque’s funding will go up if the amendment passes, he says.

“DeBeque will see a funding increase of $1,007 per pupil, or $120,063 as a district, if Amendment 66 is approved at the November 2013 ballot,” the campaign wrote in a stakeholder’s memo to the district a full week before KKCO aired its report.

DeBeque is one of four districts in Colorado where property taxes account for 100 percent of what the state’s current education-funding formula calls “total program.” That means that right now, DeBeque, Clear Creek, Cripple Creek, and Pawnee school districts all receive no state education funding because the amount the districts are allotted to receive is satisfied by revenue from taxes on high-value property in those areas.

“You could think of it as a bucket,” said LeeNatali. “Ten cups is full, that’s total program. So if we want to give them two cups of state funding, we have to move some of the local funding over to a mill levy.”

Mill levies are local taxes that districts have the option to raise for themselves. A levy passed by local voters allows lawmakers to then backfill district budgets, providing the extra cash for local schools that the proposed state funding formula calls for. In DeBeque that means an overall funding increase of $120,063, not a decrease of $43,000, as reported by KKCO.

That’s one of the misreadings playing into the rural-versus-urban-Colorado narrative.

The other misreading, that 20 districts will see a per-pupil funding decrease if amendment 66 passes is a red herring, a statistical miscalculation. Overall funding for those districts increases.

“There are 20 districts that will see a per-pupil decrease,” wrote LeeNatali in an email to The Independent. “This is a mathematical quirk. In some very small districts, the numerator (their overall funding) is increasing, but their denominator (the # of students) is increasing dramatically, because we are now counting kindergarteners as full students rather than half-students. This has the effect of producing a per-pupil decrease even though they are already educating these students.”

Amendment 66 represents no “war on rural Colorado,” its supporters say. It’s a major weapon tooled to strike at the lack of resources that plague the state’s rural schools.