Big money for Montezuma County schools?

DENVER - Most Montezuma County schools would see big funding increases from a billion-dollar tax increase proposed at the Capitol this week.

But resistance to new taxes, combined with opposition from some school districts that wouldn't be helped as much, are keeping the plan in limbo at least for a few weeks.

The idea is the brainchild of Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who wants to redo the state's 20-year-old school finance formula.

His Senate Bill 213 directs more money to districts for special education, kids who don't speak English, at-risk students and full-day kindergarten.

"People know the most important natural resource we have to develop in this state is our students," Johnston said.

Business support for his bill is strong, Johnston said, because Colorado schools aren't adequately preparing a new generation of workers.

"If you were looking to open a business and expand a business and you looked around the world based on preparation, you would go to 30 other countries and almost 20 other states before you come to Colorado," Johnston said.

The bill wouldn't take effect until the 2014-15 school year, and not unless Colorado voters approve a statewide tax increase, estimated at $1 billion a year. Several ballot initiatives for income tax increases were expected to be filed Friday afternoon.

Johnston's bill also counts on districts with low local property tax rates to shoulder more of the burden for their schools. Over the past 20 years, districts with high-value real estate or lots of oil and gas production have seen their property tax rates drop, while taxes in poorer districts haven't dropped as much. The state has picked up more of the tab for both rich and poor districts.

Johnston's original formula worked against districts in La Plata County, where natural gas drilling has kept tax rates low. However, the Senate Education Committee amended the bill this week to make sure La Plata's schools and about 20 other districts would not lose funding if their voters don't approve tax increases.

School districts in Montezuma and Dolores counties stood to benefit even before the amendments. Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 would see its per-student funding rise by $1,400, to $7,698, according to Johnston's projections.

The bill remains in flux after the Senate Education Committee amended it Thursday. Johnston worries that a plan to boost minimum spending per student - supported by a bipartisan group of senators -would be a budget-buster, adding $200 million to the price tag of his bill.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, thinks the current school finance system needs to be changed. But she's frustrated at the way this bill is moving during an unusually busy and emotional legislative session.

"I wish that school finance reworking had been the centerpiece of this legislative session," Roberts said. "(It) should be an all-hands-on-deck experience."

The bill will sit idle for the next two weeks, as the Senate votes on the state budget and Johnston misses a week for family reasons.