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Publish Date: 10/13/2005

Education could get cut, Ref. C backers say

DENVER — State government’s levels of public school funding could still face cuts if Colorado voters reject Referendum C, an education-advocacy organization warned Wednesday.

If C doesn’t pass, “it will be virtually impossible to keep our schools off the chopping block,” Lisa Weil, co-founder of Great Education Colorado, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Amendment 23, the ballot initiative Coloradans approved in 2000, mandates that the base level of per-student funding in the state Public School Finance Act increase by inflation plus 1 percentage point annually through mid-2011, and that it increase by inflation each year after that.

But that’s only the starting point for calculating what each of Colorado’s 178 school districts gets from state and local funds under School Finance Act formulas, said Lakewood Republican Sen. Norma Anderson, who sponsored the 1994 finance act when she was a House member.

And Amendment 23 doesn’t bar the Legislature from changing school-finance formulas if it decides to scale back part of the annual overall state spending increases on public schools, Anderson emphasized.

Last week, after Gov. Bill Owens and a group of Denver metropolitan area school superintendents issued similar warnings, Independence Institute President Jon Caldara countered that education is protected from state budget cuts.

But Anderson, who supports Referendum C on this year’s ballot, said Wednesday that Amendment 23, which she also supported, does not insulate schools from state funding cuts if lawmakers have to slice hundreds of millions more dollars from the state’s annual budgets.

If C fails, “education funding will be at risk for further cuts despite Amendment 23,” Anderson said, predicting “it will certainly create a dire situation for the state of education in Colorado.”

Referendum C asks voters to let the state keep a projected $3.7 billion over the coming five years that otherwise would have to be refunded to taxpayers because of revenue-growth limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Under measures the Legislature adopted earlier this year, at least 30 percent of that five years of TABOR surpluses, if voters approve Referendum C, would have to be spent on textbooks, libraries, kindergarten and preschool programs and in-classroom instruction expenses.

Many foes of Referendum C have argued that the Legislature and Colorado voters should instead address Amendment 23 and its annually mandated increases in state spending on schools — increases that force lawmakers to cut other areas of the budget when times are tight.

But Anderson said Wednesday that Amendment 23 “is not the major villain” in the state’s budget crisis.

She said Referendum C opponents really want the chance to cut state funding for public schools.

“Let the children suffer. That’s what they’re saying,” Anderson charged. “Let the children suffer.”

Weil said that even with the current School Finance Act funding formulas and Amendment 23’s annual increases in the base level of funding, “our schools are barely treading water financially.”

Weil said that the base level of Public School Finance Act funding increased by only 1.1 percent this school year, but that schools’ health-insurance and energy costs have grown even more rapidly.

Caldara, however, has called school officials’ warnings “absolute fear-mongering” and said last week that “they must be getting really desperate if they need to scare kindergartners into passing this tax increase.”

John Fryar can be reached by e-mail at jfryar@times-call.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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