Despite boost, Colorado school funding is still below pre-recession levels

If there’s any topic that is almost as important to lawmakers as the budget, it’s education. So what will be different for Colorado’s rural schools in the coming academic year?

First, funding.

Gov. John Hickenlooper finally signed the annual School Finance Act last week, which will boost the state’s funding of public schools by $3.5 million in 2016-17. That equates to a per-pupil bump of about $112, to $6,367.90. That amount is still 11.5 percent less than what schools would be getting were it not for the “negative factor,” a budgetary device first used about six years ago, during the recession, to cut school funding to match what was available from the state.

But not every school will get that $6,367.90 per student. Some are being handed cuts, based on a last-minute compromise on the School Finance Act.

Ten rural school districts — seven on the Eastern Plains — are dealing with dwindling property-tax revenues from a downturn in energy and mining activity. The districts turned to the state to ask for help, but that assistance will be minimal, if they get anything at all.

Sponsors of the School Finance Act said the districts would have to absorb their share of the negative factor cut, meaning each district would be hit with an 11.5 percent cut to per-pupil funding.

Six of the ten districts that haven’t sought state funding in the past will be able to tap into a $1 million contingency reserve fund to cover 25 percent of the cuts. Wiggins, in Morgan County, is among the six. The other four, including the Pawnee School District in Weld County, will have to manage the cuts on their own. (See the chart below for total funding.)

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And while lawmakers didn’t get everything they wanted in the proposal, a new law will help rural schools find new teachers, or help their existing teachers gain new credentials, which can lead to better pay. Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 104, sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, and Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Nancy Todd of Aurora, on June 6. The new law has three components: an incentive to draw student teachers to rural schools, a “cadet” program to attract rural high school students to the teaching profession, and funding for a matchmaker program between teacher education programs and rural schools, hosted at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison.

Computer science and coding courses could be counted as math or science courses to graduation requirements under a bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in April. Under the new law, the State Board of Education must first adopt academic standards that include the knowledge and skills gained through computer science courses. That must be done by July 1, 2018. After that, local school districts can decide whether to adopt the standards.

Another new law will impact three northeastern school districts: Valley in Logan County, and Brush and Fort Morgan in Morgan County. This new law requires anyone running for the board of a school with 1,000 or more students to submit to the school district a biographical statement of 1,000 words or less. The statement must be accurate, according to the law, which was signed on June 10. Once received, the statement must be posted on the district website no later than 60 days before the election.

Also impacting school board candidates: campaign finance disclosure requirements. Under a law signed by Hickenlooper on June 8, those who run for school board seats must follow the same campaign reporting requirements that apply to certain elected officials — state House, Senate, and District Attorney candidates, for example. This means reporting the name and address of anyone who contributes $250 or more. Candidates also now must report how campaign funds were spent, if that spending hits $1,000 or more in a calendar year.

The General Assembly also approved several proposals tied to workforce development, including a bill creating a “Career Development Success Pilot Program” in the Colorado Department of Education.

The two-year pilot program, which will start off with $1 million in 2017-18, provides money to school districts to encourage high school students to participate in industry certificate programs, internships or apprenticeships, or take advanced placement courses.

The new law, signed by Hickenlooper on May 27, directs the Department of Education to rank the programs for funding purposes, with the certificate program getting money first, then the internships or apprenticeships and then the AP courses. Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), the multi-district education service providers, also are eligible to seek funding.

The Department of Education, Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Workforce Development Council will collaborate to identify qualifying certificate, internship and apprenticeship programs.

Finally, the General Assembly made some changes in its law governing how students take medical marijuana during the school day.

Previously, state law allowed school districts to adopt policies that would allow a parent or medical professional to administer the medical marijuana to a student who is on school grounds.

But none of Colorado’s 178 school districts adopted such a policy, fearing the loss of federal funds. The new law, signed by Hickenlooper on June 6, repeals the policy requirement and instead allows parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana in non-smokable form.

The law does give districts an “out,” however: Those that fear they will lose federal money should be able to prove it, and should post a statement, conspicuous on the website, that details the district’s reasons for not complying with the law.

Photo credit: Jameziecakes, Creative Commons, Flickr 

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. My problem with schools is the lack of transparency, especially in PERA. I would be much more open to tax increases if taxpayers had a seat at the table. Until then, I will sadly continue voting NO.

  2. Again, PC…Teachers who contribute to PERA do not double dip into Social Security.

    Don’t you think you should pay for good teachers? Doesn’t society deserve well-paid school employees?

    Are you contributing to Social Secuity?

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