The first overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system in 20 years is generating lots of questions from school officials. The bill would inject more money into public schools- if voters approve a tax increase -  and it would target more support to students with the highest needs. CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin went to two forums about the proposal to see what kind of feedback it’s generating. 

Here is a transcript of her report:

Reporter Jenny Brundin:  Jane Urschel with the Colorado Association of School Boards expected to find lots of answers in the 144-page draft of the school finance bill. She felt like she came up empty handed, like getting a package that’s missing parts.

Jane Urschel: And you unpack it and it says some assembly required and then you can’t find the directions in English (laugh).

Reporter: Still Urschel and about 150 educators, parents and others came to ask questions about the complex bill and challenge what they see as its shortcomings.

Moderator: In a moment you’ll get a chance to sit in one of 5 small groups….(fade under)….

Reporter: They had a chance to sit with the bill’s key movers and shakers, like Senator Mike Johnston.

Representative from Falcon 49 school district: The increase in taxes are going to go to Denver....

Reporter: This woman says analysis done by her district – Falcon 49, east of Colorado Springs, shows that Denver, for example, will be getting a 15% bump in funding because of its higher rates of poverty, while Falcon would get just a 2.7% boost. That’s because the bill is trying to bring up districts whose students are lagging way behind, they have more catching up to do. But Senator Mike Johnston points out it’s only a fraction of the overall spending that would be used to even out the playing field. He assures her that all districts would share in the bulk of new funding.

Sen. Mike Johnston: What you see is in the full day K [Kindergarten], ECE [Early Childhood Education], special ed [special education], these are across the board investments….(fade under)

Reporter: Some districts would have to take a big hit in one area- that is a fund that helps off-set high cost of living for teachers. It’s about a billion dollars and it would be diverted to help schools with lots of students in poverty. And that’s not chump change for a district like Brighton 27 J district - which gets an extra 20 percent from the state to help teachers afford to live in the district. If that money goes away, local taxpayers would be expected to pick up that share --something district CFO Suzi DeYoung says, will be difficult.

Suzi DeYoung: The question is how to we pose this [to voters]? The legislation is very confusing, and how we would be able to explain how this legislation impacts our voters….and ask to make that up?

Reporter: Meanwhile, charter school advocates are upset the bill doesn’t force districts to share some of the extra property tax dollars they raise – with charters, which are independently run public schools. For one Cherry Creek charter, that means $1600 less per student than traditional schools. Karen Secor is the mother of a charter school student there.

Karen Secor: You have got to be responsible to every kid, not just the district kid, but the other public school kids. Those charter school kids need to be included and they need to count.

Reporter: Charter supporters are working behind the scenes with Johnston’s team on a solution.  Special education advocates also pressed their case. Districts are siphoning off millions of dollars from other programs to meet federally required special education standards. 

Kevin Vick: The special ed factor is really driving a lot of the inadequacy of services for our kids.

Reporter: Educator Kevin Vick told Johnston the bill isn’t doing enough to support special education. District officials say it’s hard to know whether to support the bill, especially when many of the final details are still being worked out. Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards says schools have sustained a billion dollars in cuts in recent years, so they are hungry for any help. But, many know the bill doesn’t meet all their needs.

Urschel: But I think they are also looking at the reality, shall we say, this is the only ride in town. We need to build this vehicle so that we can get over 800,000 students to where they need to be, knowing what they need to know, so they can pursue the Great American Dream. So they also have some hope that this might be the vehicle for that – but it’s too soon to say.

Reporter: Johnston’s colleague Senator Rollie Heath urged educators to come together on the bill. Heath says he learned from experience when he promoted Prop 103 to raise taxes for education in 2011. It failed because he says voters won’t hand over money without details and assurances about how it’s being used; something he says Johnston’s bill does. 

Senator Rollie Heath. We can’t solve every problem that everybody would like to solve in this bill. In my vernacular, this is put up or shut up time  (fade under)

Reporter: There are so many details to be worked out, and so little time. Also hanging over the proceedings is a court ruling in the Lobato case that Colorado’s funding system is unconstitutional. Experts say it may need an infusion of $2-$4 billion dollars, far more than Johnston bill would ask for. Johnston says his bill is at least a start, and if it’s going to make it through the legislature and on the ballot, he’ll need to assemble a large coalition of support and soon. 

[Photo: CPR]