As Election Day – Nov. 5 – approaches, voters seized one of their final opportunities to make up their minds on the many contentious ballot issues facing the state, city and county at a forum hosted by the La Plata County League of Women Voters on Thursday night at Durango City Hall.
Though the city of Durango's bag fee managed a scene-stealing appearance at the end of the forum, the blockbuster issue was Amendment 66, an unsexy billion-dollar tax increase with huge consequences for education.
If passed by voters, Amendment 66 will alter the school funding formula for the first time in 20 years.
Jason Austin, executive director of business services for Durango School District 9-R, told forum attendees that Amendment 66 will “have a fairly significant impact on Durango.”
Colorado comes in 42nd among the 50 states in per- pupil funding; of the 177 districts in Colorado, Durango is receiving less in per pupil funding from the state “than 147 of the other school districts. Only 30 districts are getting less than us,” said Austin.
Under the state funding formula, Durango gets $6,522 per pupil; Bayfield School District, $6,863; Ignacio School District, $7,443.
If Amendment 66 passes, Durango will get $7,015 – an increase of $493; Bayfield, $7,121, an increase of $258; and Ignacio, $7,372, a decrease of $71.
Austin said the Durango district, which – battered by the recession, and years into deep cuts – already is facing a yearly deficit of $1.6 million, would have to make devastating cuts if Amendment 66 fails.
If 66 passes, the district stands to gain $4,033,818 annually, which it needs just to comply with “unfunded mandates,” Austin said.
In the parlance of educators, the phrase “unfunded mandates” bitterly refers to a series of laws, including Senate Bill 191, passed by the Colorado Legislature in the last eight years that have obliged school districts to undertake expensive reforms without providing any money for them to do so.
Austin said these unfunded mandates have left Durango School District financially between a rock and a hard place, pointing to special education.
The Colorado Department of Education requires districts to make special provisions in educating English language learners; yet Colorado only gives the district $20,000 for ELL education, while “we spend over $467,000” on the program, he said.
He said the $4 million that Amendment 66 promises Durango would fully fund kindergarten, whereas right now, Durango School District picks up the majority of the tab.
Amendment 66 is funded by a two-tier income tax, with individuals who earn more than $75,000 a year paying a slightly higher rate than those who earn less.
He said the average Colorado family, with a median income of $57,000, will pay $133 more a year in state taxes if Amendment 66 passes, which is equal to an increase of 36 cents a day.
Kathy Morris, chairwoman of the Animas Fire Protection District, spoke about two Durango Fire Protection District-related issues: Animas and Hermosa Cliff fire districts' Issue 4B, and the city of Durango Issue 2A. She said the measures, if enacted, would reduce costs and increase efficiency.
“It's not often that you find members of four elected boards and one council agreeing to reduce government, but that's exactly what's happening,” she said.
She said the respective fire districts “all agree it makes economic sense to have one governing board, not five, overseeing emergencies in the area, and it can be done without increasing current tax rate.”
City Councilors Dean Brookie and Keith Brant spoke, respectively, for and against the bag fee for the city of Durango.
In his opening remarks, Brant said, “We're ecstatic we never have to talk about this again as long as we live.”
Brant said if the bag fee failed, he'd consider the issue dead.
But Brookie said, “I don't think so. There are a lot of citizens out there who want this and want this passionately.”