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Roberts, Brown, local officials discuss school funding

Sen. Ellen Roberts and Rep. J. Paul Brown, representatives of Archuleta County at the state level, were in Pagosa Springs Tuesday for a meeting in which much of the conversation concerned the state’s school funding system.

And though the meeting offered no firm solutions, it did offer ideas for concerned parties to use in an attempt to change funding to the benefit of Archuleta School District 50 Jt.

The meeting was attended by Roberts, Brown, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, school district superintendent Mark DeVoti, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, county staff, members of the school board and members of the public.

“For years now, we’ve been trying to figure out what happened to Archuleta County,” Roberts said to begin the discussion.

Roberts was referring to a 2007 educational mill levy freeze that froze school district mill levies at either 27 mills or the current levy, whichever was less — part of the state’s School Finance Act (SFA).

The mill levy freeze changed the amount of funding received per pupil, lumping Archuleta County in with nine other districts that earn a noticeably lower per-pupil amount than the rest of the state. In Fiscal Years 2006-2007, the state aid amount to the local district was 48 percent. In Fiscal Year 2010-2011, it dropped to 16 percent.

The Projected Fiscal Year Funding Summary for the state’s school districts lists Archuleta School District as receiving $1,013 per pupil from the state. Many school districts are given between $3,000 and $6,000 per pupil.

Prior to that mill levy freeze, school district levies would decrease if assessed values within the district went up, also according to the SFA.

Archuleta School District 50 Joint’s mill levy sits at 21.014.

Josh Abrahms, a state legislative staff member who looked into the funding concerns with Roberts, explained the state funding mechanisms via conference call during the meeting.

Abrahms explained that each district receives the same base amount each year (which is increased yearly). Then, factors such as cost of living and risk, among others, are factored in to determine a per-pupil amount. The amount is multiplied by the number of kids to determine a district’s full funding.

But, before the state’s share of that funding is determined, the revenue earned locally is taken away from that amount, with the state backfilling to the calculated amount in an equalization measure.

“It’s an unequal equalization,” said Jim Huffman, chair of the Archuleta County Republican Committee in response, adding that some districts may be wealthy, but pay a lower mill levy and get more from the state, while poorer districts may have a higher mill levy and receive less from the state.

Abrahms earlier in the meeting had noted that any funding scenario would create both winners and losers, and equalizing the funding is perennially discussed as the state Legislature looks to pass the SFA each year. Roberts likened the situation to a balloon — when one side of the balloon is pushed in and modified, the other side of the balloon must also change.

Nevertheless, the questions asked and discussion around the table focused on how to change that balloon.

“How do we push the balloon back?” DeVoti asked. “What do we need to do besides understand we’re at the short end of the stick with about nine other counties?”

“Is there anything we can do to change the formula?” Commissioner Clifford Lucero asked.

“I honestly don’t have an answer for you,” Abrahms responded, adding that the SFA itself would have to be changed and that it is passed annually. “That is really the only place and the only venue you can make an effort to change.”

Brown also posed the thought that, since Archuleta School District had a rapid increase in property values, followed by a sharp decline now, wouldn’t the funding change in the future because the school would collect less revenue?

Abrahms agreed.

Stating that the lower assessed value was only a temporary fix, school board member Joanne Irons suggested that there could be more factors to be looked at in terms of the formula.

“To me, it’s a glitch in the software,” Irons said.

Later in the discussion, Roberts suggested that additional factors could be used for a period of time.

Roberts suggested that community support behind a measure would help in the process of changing the SFA, which requires 30 House votes, 18 Senate votes and the governor’s signature to approve.

Roberts also noted that any efforts would have to move quickly to affect next year’s SFA.

“Find out who else cares enough to work with you,” Roberts suggested.

Following the meeting, DeVoti sat down for an interview with SUN staff, noting that the meeting provided valuable information.

“What we got that was concrete for the first time ... was that there are some people we could probably collaborate with to get a stronger message,” he said, clarifying that, prior to the meeting, he was unsure of how many other districts in the state were in the same relative position as Archuleta.

That knowledge will allow DeVoti to contact those other districts and see if they’re interested in an effort to affect the state funding.

DeVoti also spoke of the importance of any effort coming from the community and said the school district should not be the legislative lead in the effort.

“I really expect this to be a community effort,” DeVoti said, adding, “People can’t just sit back and expect the school district to do this.”

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