Durango schools do a turnaround on school-finance bill

In Colorado, education reform isn’t easy.

When Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, unveiled his sweeping education-reform bill this year, naysayers assured themselves that his bill would go down – the way of every other attempt at statewide education reform since 1994.

Yet on Tuesday morning, the Colorado Senate passed Senate Bill 213 20-15, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans opposed, including Durango Sen. Ellen Roberts.

Perhaps more surprising than the bill’s triumph in the state Senate was its victory at last night’s meeting of Durango School District 9-R school board, which, after some trepidation, unanimously voted for a resolution supporting the measure.

Just two weeks ago, the district was a staunch opponent, with Durango Superintendent Daniel Snowberger traveling to Denver to lobby Sen. Johnston for its change after reading a first draft and discovering under its proposed financial scheme, Durango would be the “biggest loser.”

“It’s a lot better now,” Snowberger said at the meeting.

Originally, the bill would have allotted $8,293 to educating every student in Denver, while Durango students would have gotten just $6,800.

Meanwhile, the bill originally called for Durango residents to pay $12 million more a year through mill levy increases.

The original bill would have affected about 20 rural districts similarly to Durango, including Ignacio and Bayfield, obliging big increases in mill levies but offering little in increased school funding.

Last week, Snowberger travelled to Denver along with Bayfield Superintendent Troy Zabel and Ignacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto to campaign against the measure.

Major amendments have been attached to the bill since their visit.

Snowberger urged the board to pass the resolution supporting the amended bill because at this point its most egregious faults had been addressed, and whatever its shortcomings, the bill offered the rare promise of progress in education across the state and in the district. “I believe it’s the right message to send to the Legislature: Thank you for listening, working with us, bringing us to the table.”

He also said it was the right message to send the community: “Right now, they’ve heard that Durango’s ticked off, and that it’s a bad bill. But we’re no longer there,” he said.

School board member Joe Colgan saluted Snowberger’s outsized influence in Denver saying Sen. Johnston had recognized Durango on the Senate floor and joked that Johnston “doesn’t do anything without talking to Snowberger first.”

Snowberger said he’d actually been slightly terrified to find powerful lawmakers texting him.

With the amendments, Durango 9-R can expect, if the bill passes, an additional $3.9 million in 2014-15, or $554 extra per student. The big winner regionally would be Montezuma-Cortez, with an extra $1,257 per student.

“Every district walks away with additional dollars as a result of this bill, and I think it’s bad to say: ‘If we’re not a bigger winner than X, we won’t support it,’” Snowberger said.

Some board members were still reluctant to issue a public statement of support.

Andy Burns wondered whether it would be best to remain neutral.

Julie Levy said the bill would provide for $1 billion in new funding for K-12 education, yet Durango students would see “very little” of that money.

Snowberger said while the bill was far from perfect, Durango students would nonetheless see proportional increased funding.

Levy, relenting, said the resolution was narrowly worded, and only praised the amendments to Senate Bill 213.

Grinning, School Board President Jeff Schell said, “Yes, it’s a very well-worded resolution.”

District Spokeswoman Julie Popp said the bill no longer required the district to hit local homeowners with drastic mill levy increases, noting in its current version, the bill will be funded by statewide tax increases.

In a statement emailed during the school board meeting, Snowberger wrote, “while we had initial concerns over the original form of the bill, we are pleased with the amendments that were secured in the Senate and support it moving forward in the legislative process. We are equally pleased that there won’t be a decrease in funding as the bill currently stands, which means we won’t need to ask county residents to consider additional mills or taxes to achieve some increased funding within Durango.”

The bill’s author, Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, said he got input from more than 2,000 Colorado education experts and advocates over two years to help him craft the bill.

But state Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said, “In my opinion, this is not reform. This is a billion-dollar tax increase.”

Colorado lags behind the national average in school funding by $2,500 per student, said state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Herald Staff Writer Joe Hanel contributed to this report. cmcallister@durangoherald.com