Public schools are largely funded by local property taxes. So, one would be excused for thinking that our rapidly increasing property tax bills would result in a windfall for local public schools. I figured that as we paid more in property taxes, our kids would at least partially benefit. I was wrong.
The State of Colorado performs a complex calculation to arrive at a base per-student funding number for each public school district. For the 2023-24 school year, that number is about $10,000 per Buena Vista (BV) student (using round numbers to account for my own math shortcomings). We have an enrollment of just under 1,000 students, which means according to the State, BV Schools should have about $10,000,000 to work with this school year.
To arrive at the State’s funding obligation, they then subtract the amount of revenue BV Schools receives from local property taxes. So, as we pay more locally, the state pays us less. We can debate the equities of this arrangement until we’re blue in the face, but unless state funding changes, these are the facts we must deal with.
State law does allow school district voters to approve some additional property taxes to increase local funding through a mechanism known as a Mill Levy Override (MLO). BV District voters previously approved such additional taxes, and our district anticipates about $3,000,000 in MLO revenue for 2023-24. However, even MLOs are capped at 25-30 percent of the total program funding the district is entitled to under the State funding formula. So, it seems we’ve already nearly maxed out our MLO opportunities.
As the cost of living (which is somewhat addressed in the calculation of base per-student funding) increases along with property values, our school district receives roughly the same amount of total revenue year-over-year. Thus, as it gets harder for faculty and staff to live and work here, the base funding formula simply does not allow BV Schools to materially impact the take-home pay of its employees without sacrificing other budget priorities.
Making these difficult decisions is what school board members get paid the BIG BUCKS for (it’s an unpaid position). Our school board must be able to rely on administrative staff to provide a range of options to allow for some flexibility in the decision-making process. It’s no easy task for our Superintendent and Finance Director to do that under the current set of circumstances. While I recognize that, it is incumbent upon board members to ask difficult questions, challenge budget assumptions, and debate budget priorities.
As President Biden is fond of saying, “Don’t tell me your values, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Should I be elected to our local school board, it is in that spirit that I look forward to carefully reviewing the current budget, understanding why we’ve decided to spend money where we have, and then digging in on the 2024-25 budget next spring. We’ll need to make sure we’re demonstrating our values as a school community in how we spend our tax dollars.
Going forward, we may need to look at increasing our MLO (if possible under Colorado law to do so) to make sure we can fund the teachers, staff, and opportunities our kids deserve. All the while, we must push our state legislators and Governor to not just sponsor one-off, complicated, and ambiguous funding mechanisms like Proposition HH, but to overhaul the statewide funding formula for public schools. The State of Colorado needs to fund public schools like the invaluable assets they truly are.
By Casey Martin, Candidate for Buena Vista Board of Education – District 1
Featured image: The new complex for Buena Vista High School and Middle School.