Colorado’s rural schools dodge major funding cuts

The state’s smallest rural schools avoided funding cuts that would force either their closure or consolidation, under amendments adopted Monday by the state House

The School Finance Act, which annually sets the amount of per-pupil funding for the state’s public schools, won initial approval from the state House this afternoon.

The bill, which was rushed into a committee hearing last week before being made available to the public, would have cut funding to the state’s smallest school district, in Agate, which is in Elbert County. A handful of other small rural school districts on the Eastern Plains, all with declining enrollments, could have been affected in the future.

The language in question addressed the number of pupils funded in a very small rural school. As introduced, the bill lowered the minimum pupil funding of 50 students, even when the district doesn’t have that many, to 25 students. Agate would have lost $175,000 out of its $500,000 annual budget, a cut the schools couldn’t shoulder.

Forcing districts to consolidate through the budget process raised an outcry from rural school advocates and lawmakers at the Capitol. Monday, with the support of the Joint Budget Committee, which is sponsoring the bill, that language was stripped out of the measure.

The House also discussed whether to allow other rural school districts, which are seeking state funding for the first time in recent memory, to obtain grants to cover budget cuts tied to the “negative factor.”

The negative factor, a budgetary maneuver designed to cover budget shortfalls beginning in 2010, resulted in budget cuts to the state’s school districts. The cuts, which began in 2010, grew to $1 billion and were spread out over several years.

Under the School Finance Act, the share of budget cuts from the negative factor would be applied all at once to a handful of rural school districts seeking state funding for the first time in recent memory. Until recently, these districts received all of their revenue from local property taxes, which included substantial revenue from mining operations, such as oil and gas, gold and coal. With the mining industry in decline, the districts turned to the state for funding for 2016-17.

The School Finance Act as introduced would allow those districts to take out loans to cover budget cuts, loans rural school advocates and lawmakers say those districts will struggle to pay back.

An amendment from Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican from Roxborough Park, would have allowed those loans to be turned into grants to cover 50 percent of the cuts, but that amendment was rejected. Lawrence’s district includes Teller County, one of the districts impacted by the downturn in mining.

The bill is up for a final vote from the House on Tuesday and then heads to the Senate.

 

Photo credit: frankieleon, Creative Commons, Flickr

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