Schools scramble after 66 loses vote

By Joe Hanel
Journal Denver Bureau

DENVER – Education advocates are reacting with a mix of resolve and confusion to the staggering size of the loss of Amendment 66 at Tuesday’s election.

With votes in 51 of the state’s 64 counties fully counted, the income tax increase for schools had lost about 35 percent to 65 percent statewide and in Montezuma County.

Many Republicans were quick to pin the loss on Gov. John Hickenlooper, who faces re-election next year.

But at the Capitol, legislators said they would find a way to help the state’s schools, although they aren’t sure how.

And for Alex Carter, the loss has him wondering how he will be able to give a decent education to kids in Montezuma-Cortez schools, where he is superintendent.

“We simply do not have the resources we need to offer a world-class education to our kids. And we’re not going to,” Carter said. “Colorado needs to wake up. I am really disheartened by this.”

Cortez schools adopted a four-day week to save money, but returned to a five-day week last year. Schools had cut librarians and ended elementary school art classes. Dove Creek remains on a four-day week.

Local voters supported a bond for a new high school last year, and Carter thinks the community couldn’t sustain a property tax hike for its schools.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, designed Amendment 66 to help districts like Montezuma-Cortez by rewriting the state’s two-decade-old school finance formula.

Over the years, state support has drifted toward richer districts, and inequalities grew among schools.

But repeated attempts to reform the system have failed, because they amount to taking one school’s slice of the pie and giving it to another.

Johnston’s gambit was to make the pie bigger before he resliced it, making sure just about everyone got a bigger slice. La Plata County schools, which have richer taxes bases thanks to the gas and oil industry, would have gotten small increases – or, in Ignacio’s case, no real increase. Montezuma-Cortez schools, where property values are lower and natural gas isn’t a factor, would have received an extra $1,200 per student.

Johnston led a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats on several school reform bills the past several years, including a controversial revamp of teacher tenure that created a deep rift within the Democratic Party.

But Republicans voted against Johnston’s new school finance act because it called for a billion-dollar tax increase. It passed with only Democratic votes, but it won’t take effect unless voters approve a tax increase by 2017.

House Republicans released an education agenda Wednesday for 2014 that borrows some of the most popular parts of Johnston’s finance reforms, including boosting funding for charter schools and English language learners, and changing the way the state calculates school populations.

But without extra funding for all schools, charter schools will have a hard time getting any extra cash out of the Legislature.

Carter says there’s not much more his district can do without added resources.

“It is incredibly disheartening that people who say they value education only value it as long as it doesn’t cost them anything,” Carter said.

Other school advocates, like Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney, say there are reasons to hope even in the landslide defeat.

“Obviously, I’m really disappointed, but I’m not discouraged, because I did not hear at any point during this campaign that people are not committed to education reform,” Watney said.

Johnston thinks events outside of Colorado might have influenced voters here.

Internal polls showed Amendment 66 was holding up well until about a month ago, when the federal government shut down and the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act bombed. Undecided voters quickly decided against the amendment, Johnston said.

“We took about the hardest last four weeks you could have expected in an election cycle when you’re trying to re-instill people’s faith in investing in the competency of government,” he said.

Many Republicans, though, blamed Hickenlooper, including Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

“Colorado voters are ready to elect a governor who, unlike Gov. Hickenlooper, will listen to the people of Colorado, not the out-of-state special interests,” Call said in a news release on election night.

Hickenlooper’s campaign team created the strategy for Amendment 66. Curtis Hubbard, spokesman for the Amendment 66 campaign, said it wasn’t out of line to ask voters for a tax increase – something only voters in Colorado can approve.

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