2 December 2009: Budget cutsshould avoid schools

Budget cuts should avoid schools

It’s a mess, quite frankly, and in the truest sense of the word, one feels compassion for Gov. Bill Ritter having to make excruciating budget cuts. Also, one can understand the desire for equity when cutting and gutting programs. After all, one person’s sacred cow is another’s prime beef ready for slaughter.

The constitution, however, allows for neither compassion nor equity as grounds for disregarding it.

The governor’s plan is to cut school funding by 4.3 percent by making “an adjustment to their mill levy,” even in Clear Creek and eight others that are self-funded, operating on less than 2 percent of state funding.

“I’ve insisted on a fair and balanced budget strategy that minimizes pain and asks everyone to share in the solutions,” Ritter wrote in the Denver Post, even those, I add, whose part in the solution does nothing to solve the problem

Rep. Claire Levy tells me she has been asking questions since Superintendent Bill Patterson raised it at the governor’s recent town hall meeting in Idaho Springs.

“The answers I have received haven’t been consistent. I think that’s because they are tinkering a bit with the exact formula that will be used to make the cuts. One person said to me that CCC wouldn’t be required to reduce its local share, which would be good news. (However), the governor and JBC have said they will be sure the cuts are equitable, without specifying exactly what that means.”

Despite our “abundant wealth” — ostensibly only Pitkin (Aspen) is richer — and being “de-Bruced,” the state limits how much the CCSD can spend. It returns only $90,000 of our money — 1.2 percent of CCSD’s budget — for general fund usage while using the rest for other items like transportation it otherwise takes care of in 170 other districts.

Understandably a downward adjustment to the mil levy would be good news for property owners, but it raises two issues. The first is that while doing nothing to solve the state’s fiscal dilemma, it could cause the district’s budget to be cut by over $1 million over the next two years: a 13 percent cut, or 20 teachers.

The second is the question of TABOR coming into play when the economy rebounds and we need to restore the tax/mil levy rate to its current level. It could be considered a tax increase needing voters’ approval.

Finally, there is that pesky constitutional issue about Amendment 23 that mandates the state to fund public schools 1 percent higher than the rate of inflation, which my cohorts at the Colorado Education Association rightly point out, can’t be disregarded simply because we’re in an economic pickle.

Levy says she hasn’t as yet seen the legal analysis on Amendment 23 and the specifics of making cuts, but had “heard that Ritter and the JBC had a legal opinion that Amendment 23 only applied to the base PPOR (per-pupil operating revenue) and didn’t apply to the factors.”

That legal opinion comes, of course, from Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, who, I bet, is not a minimalist about TABOR. One would think if Amendment 23 can be disregarded, the same is true for TABOR. Nothing would preclude the legislature from raising personal income taxes without asking for the approval from voters — just call it a “fee” for the privilege of living in Colorado.

Levy says, “I have stressed to the governor’s staff and to JBC members that the cuts have a disproportionate impact on smaller school districts because they are less able to absorb the cuts and spread them out than large districts, so the size of a cut should also consider the impact on the total budget of the district.”

How about no cuts at all for Clear Creek? Here’s one solution from Superintendent Patterson: The state keeps the $90,000 of Clear Creek property taxes it returns to the CCSD coffer, and we keep every dollar we raise locally at the current tax rate. Not only would it make sense for the financial health of our schools, it would also be a positive contribution to alleviating the state’s crisis by saving it $90,000.

We can all agree there are no easy solutions. Nevertheless, as we know from experience, proclaiming something fair and balanced doesn’t make it fair and balanced.

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