teachers at the Capitol

Teachers rally for more state money in education during one of several events at the Colorado Capitol in 2018.

The School Finance Act won preliminary approval from the Colorado Senate Tuesday with a host of changes tied to how lawmakers will divvy up $99 million in extra funding.

Senate Bill 246 is sponsored by Senate Education Chair Nancy Todd of Aurora and Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument. 

The bill won unanimous approval on April 18 from the Senate Education Committee and identical approval from Senate Appropriations on April 19.

But there have been a fair number of changes to the bill since its introduction, with lawmakers and special interest groups jockeying for some of the nearly $100 million made available in the past several weeks.

They funds appeared when the residential assessment rate, which calculates property taxes, didn't drop as much as was expected, freeing up $107.6 million. The first $8.6 million goes to senior and disabled veteran homestead exemptions, which provide a break on property taxes. The rest was available for education.

As introduced, Senate Bill 246 provided $25 million in one-time funding to rural schools; $5 million for behavioral health like anti-suicide efforts; and $25 million to reduce the budget stabilization factor, a debt to public schools incurred during the 2010 legislative session. 

The bill took several big turns as it moved through the appropriations committee last week.

The committee dropped the amount rural schools would get from $25 million to $20 million, still short of the $30 million rural schools had requested.

The bill was also amended to remove the $5 million for behavioral health; lawmakers noted other bills moving through the General Assembly already address that need.

But the biggest changes took place Tuesday when the bill came up for Senate debate. First, Lundeen added an amendment to require rural schools to report on how they're spending those one-time funds; he said the amendment had been agreed to by all stakeholders.

The biggest financial change is a $22 million boost to special education funding, promoted by Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. 

This is the most significant investment in special education in years, Zenzinger told Colorado Politics Tuesday. The $22 million infusion into special education will raise the state's share of special education costs from 31.4% to about 47%.

But Zenzinger also pointed out that "a day of reckoning" is coming for the state and school districts that don't adequately fund special education. That's because of a 2017 lawsuit, Endrew v. Douglas County School District, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a family who claimed their child's special education needs were not adequately funded. 

Since that ruling a toolkit named for the case has been distributed nationwide, Zenzinger said. That gives parents a road map on how to advocate for funding for their special-needs child's education.

Zenzinger said that if special education isn't funded, it won't be the state that will get sued for the underfunding. Bottom line: School districts are responsible for that, and they will be the ones on the hook if the funding for special education doesn't improve, Zenzinger said.

While the bill won approval Tuesday and heads for a final vote Wednesday, some lawmakers had issues with the whole system.

"I'm not happy with this," said Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, who has advocated for rural school funding.

"It's unfortunate that we have to supplement for special ed funding," Rankin said. "It's unfortunate that we have to talk year after year about a rural school funding bump," despite an interim committee that has been meeting for two years to figure out major changes to the school finance formula.

"We have a horribly unfair tax system that contributes to the local share of schools," in which some districts get more property taxes than others. "It's unfortunate that we can't fix these things, but we can't do it because it's not politically acceptable to raise taxes on a few people, lower it for others and equalize a system that has grown up over the last 10 years."

The original $25 million for rural schools was a better bill, added Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, another rural schools advocate.

But the bill as it is now is one of the best compromises he's seen in his 13 years in the General Assembly, Sonnenberg said.

The $22 million for special education will definitely help rural schools, he said, as rural districts have a disproportionate share of special-needs kids.

Where he worries, Sonnenberg said, "is when full day kindergarten funding is added into this, we are setting ourselves up for an increased negative factor next year if the money doesn't show up" as forecasts indicate.

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