Matthew Hamilton: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Matthew Hamilton: Guest opinion

Matthew Hamilton
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

In his recent column “We can’t tax our way out,” Charlie Leonard is right that we can’t tax our way out of a recession. Where he misses the mark is that the mill levy override is not an attempt to do so.

The mill levy override is not just about addressing budget shortfalls due to the recent economic downturn. It is widely recognized by both political parties that Colorado’s system for funding public education is not working. (For a recent University of Colorado study, Google: “Colorado’s Fiscal Future: We’ll get what we pay for.”) Per pupil funding in Colorado has dropped further and further behind the national average for the past 20 years. When adjusted for inflation, the Roaring Fork School District has lowered its per-pupil operating and maintenance expenses over the past 20 years.

Moreover, even when Colorado’s economy begins to recover, schools will not see a parallel increase in funding. TABOR makes it impossible for school funding to recover at the same pace as the economy. Until Colorado’s school finance system is completely revamped, our district will continue to need the mill levy override for essential operating expenses.

The recent economic downturn is just the latest blow to our already minimal budget. 3E is about finding a local solution to the fact that Colorado has not been providing sufficient funding for its public schools for decades.

Leonard’s column misses the mark in other regards as well.

Leonard states that “there is zero evidence that increased spending would produce better educational results.” In fact, 3E is not even about expanding the district’s budget – it’s about preventing future cuts. Colorado has already cut $375 million in education funding statewide and is predicting future cuts of over $200 million. 3E is an attempt to prevent future cuts to our district – cuts that would have dire consequences on our schools and our children. If you believe that cutting out art and music, creating crowded classrooms, or losing our high quality teachers is not going to have an impact on the quality of our schools, you are mistaken.

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Leonard’s article suggests that the district is pursuing “business as usual” and has no sense of any need for “belt-tightening” these days. To the contrary, the RFSD has lost $5.1 million in funding over the last two years – 12 percent of the total budget. Reductions have included: 15 teachers positions, 16 custodial positions, all vocational classes, 42 percent reduction of classroom materials and supplies, and 2 district office positions, among many other cuts.

Leonard suggests that 3E would mean a hike in homeowners’ property taxes. In fact, property taxes for homeowners this year will decrease even if the mill levy override passes. What the passage of the mill levy override will mean is less of a tax reduction for homeowners. For example, if your home is now valued at $300,000, your taxes are projected to decrease $250 this year. The schools are asking to keep $113 of this tax decrease, or just $9.42/month.

Leonard’s suggestion that now is the wrong economic time for a mill levy override is shortsighted. Now, during this economic recession, it is more important than ever to ensure that we have strong schools in order to maintain our property values and the economic vibrancy of our community. Countless studies demonstrate the positive impact that a strong school system has on property values and the economic health of the community that surrounds it.

Leonard suggests that 3E only “claim[s] to support education.” In fact, all funds collected through the mill levy override will be earmarked for our local district, to be used as our local district decides. Local school district funding is the sole purpose of a district’s mill levy override.

Finally, Leonard encourages people to vote no on 3E in order to “send a message to our political leadership that we can no longer afford business as usual.” In fact, voting no on 3E will have no impact on the school board or district administration. However, it will have a serious negative impact on our children, our schools and our communities way beyond the current administration. This November, our newly elected school board will need resources in order to move the district forward in a positive direction. Otherwise we will be spending our time deciding which cuts will hurt our schools and our children the least.

Leonard is right on target in one regard: He states that “public education and community health programs are essential services that need to be adequately funded, especially during periods of severe economic stress.” Right now our schools are not adequately funded, and if the mill levy override does not pass we will be facing even further cuts next year. I hope you will join me in voting yes on 3E.