Backers, opponents debate Re-1 mill levy, Prop. 103 | AspenTimes.com

Backers, opponents debate Re-1 mill levy, Prop. 103

Heather McGregor
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A three-hour Issues and Answers forum Thursday in Glenwood Springs gave supporters and opponents of education-related tax questions a chance to debate.

The forum also featured Roaring Fork School Board and Colorado Mountain College trustee candidates.

Debaters in favor: Debbie Bruell, Roaring Fork School Board member, and Shannon Pelland, Roaring Fork School District finance director.

Debater in opposition: Joyce Rankin, retired teacher and principal.

Background: The Roaring Fork School District, which serves Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, is seeking a mill levy override to generate an additional $4.8 million per year. The actual mill levy would rise or fall compared to the district’s total assessed value in order to raise the same total dollar amount each year.

Debate: Bruell and Pelland said state funding cuts to education over the past three years have forced the school district to make drastic spending cuts. More cuts in state funding are projected over the next two years, they said. The proposed mill levy override would allow the district to offset those reductions in state funding without making further spending cuts.

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Without the added mill levy, they said, the district will be forced to make cuts to programs such as art, music, physical education, bus service, advanced placement classes and after-school athletics.

“Are those things our communities are willing to live without?” Pelland asked.

Rankin said more spending on education doesn’t necessarily mean students get a better education.

“Results can be achieved with less money,” Rankin said, citing the success of charter schools locally and across the nation.

She also asked why the school district was asking for more tax dollars right at the time when property values have fallen and unemployment is high.

“I don’t want anyone telling me how to spend my money now. I want to be the one to choose,” she said.

Audience questions focused on how the mill levy funds would be used, and why a sunset provision wasn’t included so the added tax would expire after a certain number of years.

Bruell said the school board has planned to use the mill levy funds, expected to be about $4.8 million per year, to maintain reasonable class size, offer higher salaries for teachers, purchase updated textbooks, materials and technology, and for maintenance of school buildings.

Pelland said until the magnitude of next year’s state funding cuts are known, it’s hard to tell how the mill levy override funds would be divided among those four spending areas.

Rankin criticized the plan, calling it “not definite enough,” and said not enough of the funds would make their way into the hands of teachers.

She described meeting and talking with teachers in recent weeks, and said, “I’d love to take my tax dollars and hand it right to the teachers. They should be rewarded.”

Moments earlier, she also said, “What is going on in the schools cannot be solved by money, and it cannot be solved by raises for teachers.”

Debater in favor: Carol Hedges, analyst, Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute

Debater in opposition: Frank A. Wagner, Too Taxing for Colorado

Background: The statewide Proposition 103 would raise corporate and personal income tax rates from the present 4.6 percent to 5 percent and raise state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3 percent, raising about $530 million per year. Funding would be used to offset cuts to K-12 and higher education. The measure would sunset after five years, running from 2012 through 2016.

Debate: Hedges said the measure returns income and sales tax rates to the level they were at in 1999. She freely acknowledged that the measure is a five-year Band-Aid aimed at preventing deep cuts to education in the next few years.

“The adults need to step up so kids don’t become the victim of our failure to do the right thing,” she said. “Is any kid in Colorado going to be better off if we cut $200 million to $300 million from education, because that’s what will happen if Prop. 103 doesn’t pass.”

Wagner argued that the measure lacks accountability to make sure the money goes to education rather than some other areas of state general fund spending. Moreover, he said the measure would hurt the state’s economic recovery.

“Pulling that money out of the private sector will hurt growth,” he said.

He argued instead that voters should “keep it local” and approve local education tax increases if they want to shore up education funding.

Hedges cautioned that without passage of Prop. 103, local mill levy overrides may not be sufficient to offset the cuts in state education funding projected for 2012 and 2013.

Wagner and Hedges agreed that Colorado state government and education funding in particular suffer from “structural problems” caused by formulaic provisions in state law such as TABOR, Amendment 23 and the Gallagher Amendment.

Wagner said legislators should be working on that larger problem.

“That’s where the focus should be, but it’s unpopular and difficult. So the proponents seem to just go after another increase in taxes. To me, that’s the definition of insanity,” he said.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Hedges said. But she said while legislators and state leaders “figure out a vexing political problem, kids become the victims. It’s not their fault they are in school during a recession.”

hmcgregor@postindependent.com