Not All Records Are Good Records When It Comes to Taxpayers

Records are usually good things to set. Consider Jamaican Olympian Usain Bolt’s blindingly fast 100m dash record. Or maybe you’d be more impressed by U.S. Olympian Michael Phelps’ record number of individual medals—a record that hasn’t been touched since a guy named Leonidas of Rhodes won his 12th individual event in 152 B.C. That’s right, B.C. as in Before Christ. If you’re more into weirder records, you could ponder the couple who hold the record for most tattooed senior citizens, the man who maintains the world’s largest afro, the cat who holds the distinction of being the world’s longest housecat (at about four feet in length), or the llama who holds the record for highest bar jump cleared by a llama. Yep, that’s a real thing.

But sometimes records aren’t so great. For instance, the record for “worst pandemic” goes to the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the “Black Death,” which killed about a quarter of the people in Europe back during the 1300s. My guess is that few people were excited about that one. And although tax increases are somewhat less terrible than society-ravaging outbreaks of plague (some may disagree on that point), I can’t imagine Colorado taxpayers are super excited to find out that 2016 has set the state record for mill levy overrides and bonds issues on local ballots.

According to Chalkbeat, there are 44 school districts asking their local taxpayers to approve MLOs, bond issues, or both this year. That’s about 25 percent of the 178 school districts in the state. But even more impressive is the number attached to all those requests: $4.4 billion. Egads!

Now, I want to make something clear. Despite frequent requests to do so, and despite a brief excursion to highlight some financial chicanery in Jefferson County, I’m not taking a position on any of the ballot proposals this year. These issues get too complex for me to adequately or fairly analyze all of them, and I consider them to be local issues that can and should be decided by local communities.

But just because I won’t be telling you how to vote on your district’s ballot questions doesn’t mean I can’t put the overall asks in context. In fact, I think doing so is important for voters who may be having trouble deciding if more money is needed.

In 2016-17, Colorado public education is pulling in about $6.4 billion under the zombie-like School Finance Act of 1994. That amounts to a statewide per-pupil average of $7,425. But as I often say, these numbers are misleading because they exclude a great many revenue sources outside of the School Finance Act. In 2014-15, the last year for which CDE has published complete data, Colorado public education took in roughly $10.5 billion in total revenue from all sources, or about $12,449 per student. And remember, those figures are from two school years ago. They are probably considerably higher in 2016-17.

In the context of School Finance Act funding, the $4.4 billion in new taxes proposed this year is equal to 69 percent of the total money allocated to all school districts under the school finance formula in 2016-17. In terms of total revenue, the asks add up to 42 percent of total K-12 revenue if we use the 2014-15 figures.

For further clarification, consider Colorado’s general fund operating appropriations in 2016-17.  These appropriations, which are divided up to fund some portion of essentially everything the Colorado state government does, amount to about $10 billion. Thus, the combined tax increases proposed by school districts this year amount to adding 44 percent of the state’s total general fund operating appropriations solely to education in a quarter of the state’s school districts. If that doesn’t raise your eyebrows, consider that only 37.7 percent of general fund operating appropriations, or about $3.8 billion, currently goes toward K-12 education. The combined tax increases on the ballot this year eclipse that number by more than half a billion dollars.

Also consider the fact that somewhere within the total revenue brought in by school districts in Colorado is roughly $860 million in override revenues that have already been approved in approximately two-thirds of the state’s school districts. For reference, that number exceeds this year’s negative factor amount by almost $30 million. In fact, if approved, the $4.4 billion in tax increases proposed this year would bring in more than five times the amount of the total statewide negative factor. Should we expect all the negative factor-related handwringing to stop in these districts if all (or even some) of these proposals are approved by voters?

Before you grab your pitchforks, try to understand that I’m not saying more money is always a bad thing. I’m not saying that aren’t some worthwhile endeavors buried somewhere in the $4.4 billion requests being made. I’m just saying that $4.4 billion is an incredible, jaw-dropping, flabbergasting amount of money, especially when it would be added to a system that already pulls in an enormous amount of money.

Voters should and will make up their own minds about what they’re willing to pay with their hard-earned money. I just hope they’ll make those decisions based on how the money will be spent rather than falling into the trap of focusing on how much they can spend because they believe public education in Colorado operates on pennies.

We’ll know more about the K-12 financial landscape on November 9. Until then, enjoy the mercifully short time remaining until we can put the 2016 election cycle behind us.