Calculus problem 

Colorado is ending the 2010-11 fiscal year with some extra cash.

According to an e-mail sent by the Colorado Department of Education's Leanne Emm to state school district superintendents, that's the news that the Governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting and Legislative Council Staff reported on June 20 to the Joint Budget Committee. And what that means for the Department of Education and K-through-12 is that after years of cuts, they will be getting a little something back: $67.5 million.

Which sounds great, and it is. But you might want to recork that champagne. For one thing, this comes after the state has slashed K-through-12 year after year — half a billion dollars were cut in just the past two years alone. And another thing, according to Senate Majority Leader John Morse, this money might already be spent.

"It could come out a net wash," he says, "or a further cut to school districts."

Emm's e-mail does explain that the state is facing three contingencies that might suck up that pot of money.

Two of these factors are relatively common: The number of students will probably increase, and the state might find that it underestimated the number of at-risk students who require lunch assistance.

James Drew, director of communication for Widefield School District 3, says if any district finds it has more students at the beginning of calendar year 2012 than it does currently, the state will have to pay that district for those students. Instead of gleaning that money from every district in the state, as in the past, the state will be able to pull the funds directly from that $67.5 million.

"It is money that is due," Drew says. "It just won't hurt other districts."

Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, points out that last year, money was "rescinded" from districts to cover this shortfall.

"In other words," Gustafson says, "if you were a district that had more at-risk kids, you might have been a winner in the recision. Where if you were a district that had less at-risk students, you were a loser in the recision.

"They have done that to us a number of times," he adds. "It has happened three or four times over the past six or seven years."

It's the third variable mentioned in Emm's e-mail, however, that has Gustafson worried: the coming drop in his district's assessed property valuations.

This year, Colorado counties are reassessing the worth of properties, a process that directly impacts the tax collections that fund school districts. Property taxes fund districts to a point, after which the state steps in. If property values drop significantly, the state would try to stop the bleeding with that $67.5 million.

Gustafson asks, "How much did assessed valuations drop in Colorado? We know that here in D-11 we dropped at least 5 percent. ... It has never been as volatile as it has been right now."

D-11 board member Tom Strand acknowledges that having money on hand for emergencies is a much better position to be in, but everyone is eager to know how much state money will trickle down to the districts.

They'll have to wait until December, at the earliest.

"I don't think that we'll have a problem spending money," says Strand, "if it comes back to us."



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