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Morey Middle School in Denver on Nov. 8, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Voters rejected a 10-digit ask for new money for education this week, the third failed attempt at raising taxes for schools in the past eight years.

Amendment 73 — which would have raised $1.6 billion for schools on top of the $11.7 billion they get now — went down 45 percent to 55 percent in Tuesday’s election. The campaign, a grassroots effort by superintendents, school boards and teachers, built more momentum than a 2013 proposed tax hike for education but failed to build broad consensus, including with policymakers at the state Capitol.

The measure fell short not only because its backers neglected to show voters how they arrived at $1.6 billion but also because people want the state to fix its inequitable school finance formula before pumping more money into it, said lawmakers and others critical of the measure.

It’s not because voters aren’t ready to improve Colorado’s education system, said House Majority Leader-elect Alec Garnett, vice chairman of the legislature’s school finance committee. The Denver Democrat said he was not surprised the effort failed.

“People are keenly aware now more than ever that our school finance model is in crisis,” Garnett said.

PreviouslyColorado’s school finance system is broken.

Garnett and Rep. Paul Lundeen, school finance committee chairman and a Republican from Monument, said they plan to extend the committee’s work for a third year to come up with a bipartisan plan to rewrite school finance law.

The two lawmakers agree on the need for reform, but less so about whether to pour more money into schools after passing a new funding formula. The current formula transfers money not from rich districts to poor ones, or from cities to rural areas, but at random. It’s often the wealthiest communities that benefit, according to a Colorado Sun analysis, in part because the formula doles out more money to places where the cost of living is higher.

“What the taxpayers have been presented three different times, and rejected three different times, is a massive tax increase,” said Lundeen, who previously was on the State Board of Education “We need to drive more of the $11.7 billion we spend into the classroom. We need to pay teachers better. That’s what the formula needs to be about.”

Lundeen’s main problem with education funding is that an increasing percentage is going to administrative costs instead of the classroom or teacher pay, he said. “That’s a problem,” he said. “We need to fix that.” He wants to tie dollars more closely to students, meaning schools would get funding based on how many students are living in poverty, learning English or have special needs.

Garnett also wants to make the formula equitable, but added that he believes voters will have another chance, likely in 2020, to put more money into Colorado schools.

“We don’t have any more strikes to get this wrong,” he said. “The voters are quickly losing confidence. The way to get it right is to get everyone to the table.”

The solution may be in the future, but the problems exist right now

Amendment 73 backers also want a new funding formula but argued that schools are cash-strapped now and have been waiting for years for Colorado lawmakers to fix the system. Their measure would have funded full-day kindergarten and teacher pay increases, as well as rescued districts (there are now more than 100 out of 178) that have moved to four-day school weeks to cut costs.

Whether the state fixes the funding formula or not, schools need more money, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, which supported the ballot measure.

“If all you are willing to do is rearrange the existing dollars, you will create winners and losers, and you won’t have solved any problems,” she said.

Colorado has a teacher shortage of more than 3,000, she said, and rural districts struggle to hire teachers or lose them to cities because of what they can afford to pay, she said. Teacher salaries in this state range from $30,000 to $70,000. The state is near the bottom in funding per student, dropping from $232 more than the national average in 1982 to about $2,800 below the national average now.

Rainey said she was heartened, at least, that 900,000 people voted for Amendment 73 and that it captured 45 percent of the vote. That was a boost from the 34 percent approval of Amendment 66 in 2013, which would have raised $950 million for schools.

The demise in 2011 of Proposition 103, which proposed raising the state’s income tax rate each year for five years to generate $400 million for education, was also swift. The measure was declared dead within an hour of the polls closing, losing 35 percent to 65 percent.

Rainey said she didn’t want to second-guess voters, but believes many don’t realize that the people — not the legislature — must make the decision to increase taxes for schools. It’s required under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

But Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, which opposed Amendment 73, said it failed because voters weren’t willing to put more money into a system that “got the order of operations wrong.”

“It was the money first and then a hope that later on, legislators would make a change to that funding formula,” he said. If it had passed, he said, the rich districts would get richer and the poor would get slightly less poor.

“Everybody agrees that the formula doesn’t make sense,” Ragland said. “It’s outdated. It’s indefensible.”

Local districts pass a slew of fundraising measures in the meantime

While the statewide education measure went down in defeat, schools had more success in local elections. Of the 40 local measures for school bonds or mill levy overrides, 28 passed.

Douglas County narrowly passed a bond and mill levy for the first time since 2006. Similar measures failed in 2008 and 2011.

The $40 million levy override and $250 million bond were targeted for increased mental health staff, security, building upgrades and teacher pay increases. Votes weren’t finalized, but the bond issue was passing by a margin of about 6,500 votes, while the mill levy was ahead by 11,500 votes, out of 163,000 counted.

Other districts, though, suffered double disappointment with the defeat of Amendment 73 as well as their local measures, including Pueblo City 60, Bethune, Ellicott and Bennett.

The measures in smaller communities were defeated because the additional tax burden on local small-business owners is too great, said the Colorado School Finance Project’s Rainey. And that’s because of the state’s unfair school finance formula, which created a state where a child’s education “depends on their ZIP code,” she said.

“Now you just created more haves and have-nots,” Rainey said.

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