Education funding all over the map

Formula factors in size of district, student poverty

Posted 8/28/14

The Douglas County School Board long has expressed dissatisfaction with the state's education funding, saying county residents shoulder an unfair tax burden. It is not alone in concerns about K-12 funding.

A Colorado Department of Education …

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Education funding all over the map

Formula factors in size of district, student poverty


The Douglas County School Board long has expressed dissatisfaction with the state's education funding, saying county residents shoulder an unfair tax burden. It is not alone in concerns about K-12 funding.

A Colorado Department of Education official said the department's complex formula for school districts has changed little in 20 years, but is designed to factor in changes within districts.

“We've been using this formula since 1994. There have been some little tweaks around the edges, but there haven't been significant changes,” said Leanne Emm, the CDE's assistant commissioner for school finance. “I think it depends on what kind of district you live in whether you like the formula or not.

“But the formula does adjust, or attempts to adjust, for the demographics within individual districts.”

What has changed since 1994 — and angered school leaders statewide — is a recession-driven legislative cut to K-12 funding called the negative factor. Since 2010, it has reduced K-12 funding statewide by about $1 billion annually.

Under Colorado's formula, funding for every district starts at the same amount. For 2014-15, that base per-pupil funding is $6,121. From there, district-specific calculations are made, based mostly on cost of living, size of the district and number of students living in poverty.

Douglas County has a relatively high cost of living and a low number of poverty-stricken students — determined by the number who are receiving free or reduced-price school lunches. Because the district is larger, the CDE also considers the economies of scale that smaller districts don't have.

That combination lands Douglas County as the 21st-lowest in funding among 178 Colorado school districts. Its estimated per-pupil funding for 2014-15 is $6,752.

The DCSD board in July reiterated its concern about state funding when it adopted a resolution to not put a tax question aimed at capital needs on the fall ballot. The resolution stated the board believed it could not ask taxpayers to “dig deeper and provide more local tax revenues” until the district could seek redress from the state concerning its funding inequities. It said DCSD has been “consistently underfunded by the state,” with a disproportionate share of its taxes going to other Colorado school districts.

Colorado's per-pupil funding for 2014-15 ranges from $6,557 for the Branson School District in Las Animas County (with an estimated 472 students) to $15,567 for the Pawnee School District in Weld County (with an estimated 83 students).
The average is $7,021.

If the Douglas County district received the average state per-pupil funding for 2014-15, it would boost its revenues by about $269 per student — a total of $17.2 million, according to the resolution.

Douglas' “per-pupil funding is less than the state average,” Emm said. “However, they are a large district… And they have a relatively small at-risk population.”

Among DCSD's concerns, board president Kevin Larsen believes change is needed to create a more balanced distribution of at-risk student funds.

Eliminating the negative factor is the first step in addressing funding issues, Larsen said, but not the ultimate solution. Without it, DCSD would have an added $74 million in annual revenues.

With state revenues on the rise, lawmakers this year decreased the negative factor by $110 million. For DCSD, that meant an added $11 million. It's an improvement, Larsen said, but still leaves the district $63 million short of pre-negative factor levels.

Additionally, the combined effect of Colorado's Gallagher and TABOR amendments, passed in 1982 and 1992 respectively, shifted the burden of school funding from local property taxes to the state. Larsen believes that also needs to change.

“Putting more money into the discretion of local hands is ultimately the better way to go,” he said. “We are trying to do things we think would be more equitable for all districts, and certainly for Douglas County.”

How other districts compare

Cherry Creek, which Emm said is comparable to the Douglas County district, is in line to receive about $195 more per student in state funds in 2014-15. Cherry Creek has a higher percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches — about 30 percent, compared with DCSD's 10.3 percent.

“I think it's a funding formula that strives to be fair taking into account all the differing factors that school districts have in their communities,” Cherry Creek spokeswoman Tustin Amole said. “But it has not been fully funded for several years with the state Legislature withholding more than $1 billion … due to the negative factor. That has had a significant impact on all school districts in Colorado.”

Neighboring Littleton Public Schools will receive an estimated $6.38 more per student than the Douglas County district in 2014-15 funding. LPS did not respond to requests for comment.

While Douglas County receives the lowest per-pupil funding in the Denver metro area, it isn't at the bottom of the list in Colorado. Six El Paso County districts, including Academy in northern Colorado Springs, Lewis-Palmer in Monument, and Cheyenne Mountain in southern Colorado Springs, are funded at lower levels than DCSD.

Lewis-Palmer assistant superintendent Cheryl Wangeman said the funding formula “makes some sense” in its consideration of larger districts' economies of scale and percentage of disadvantaged students. In LPSD, 9.6 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The district has about 6,000 students, roughly 60,000 fewer than the Douglas County district.

Like leaders in Douglas County and Cherry Creek schools, Wangeman cites frustration with the negative factor. She also said funding for special education students falls short in Colorado, creating a constant fiscal challenge.

Echoing Larsen, she pointed to the burden put on the state by the TABOR and Gallagher amendments.

“That's difficult for the state,” she said. “I don't think there are any short-term solutions. The state has fiscal imbalances they have to deal with. Until that gets fixed, I think we're going to continue to see funding difficulties.”

A lawsuit filed in Denver District Court in June alleges the negative factor is unconstitutional and violates Amendment 23. The 2000 provision requires that annual education funding increase by the rate of inflation and enrollment growth.

Dealing with budget constraints

Wangeman said Lewis-Palmer has been challenged to work within its budget, particularly since Colorado already spends less than the national average on K-12 education.

“This school district is known for having the lowest central office administrator/student ratio probably in the state,” she said. “We cut way back on administrative staff. That means we have a lot of folks that work a lot of hours.”

LPSD has struggled to keep class sizes down and teachers available for students who need extra help.

“There are capital maintenance delays,” Wangeman said. “To make up for that, we make real good use of the state grants program. We put a new roof on Lewis-Palmer High School through the district and a grant. We did the same thing two years ago with Lewis-Palmer Middle School.

“That being said, we're really proud of what we've done. We are well known for producing kiddos who graduate, and we have one of the lowest remediation rates in the state.”

What they're getting:

Estimated 2014-15 per-pupil funding for a sampling of Colorado school districts (after the negative factor):

Branson $6,557 (lowest in state)
Lewis-Palmer $6,661
Douglas $6,752
Littleton $6,758
Jeffco $6,842
Cherry Creek $6,947
Pawnee $15,567 (highest in state)


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