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Good budget news is relative for Colorado schools

DENVER — When it comes to funding schools in Colorado, the good news is relative.

Schools aren't being cut for the first time in years as the state slowly recovers from the Great Recession, a relief to public school districts that have let go of teachers, cut extracurricular activities and increased class sizes.

More state tax revenues this year mean the average amount budgeted per student will be the same as last year, no small feat in the aftermath of budget-cutting years and increasing student enrollment.

It's a step in the right direction, lawmakers say.

"We've been cutting for three years. We've turned a corner," said Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, one of the state's budget writers.

The average amount budgeted per pupil for the 2012-13 school year is expected to be $6,474, the same as this year, but that's still about $600 lower than it was in 2009. Since then, the enrollment has increased by nearly 28,000.

But the extra money lawmakers put into K-12 education this year doesn't quell frustration from some who believe the state is massively underfunding its schools.

It's part of a continuing riddle over how best to fund education, which is the largest single item in the state's general fund.

Still, the state's per pupil spending was about $2,400 below the national average in 2009, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, a group that gathers data on school finance.

"Where they are now, by keeping the per-pupil (funding) the way it is — that's not bad news. But we shouldn't celebrate this as a victory for public schools," said Terry Scanlon, an analyst at the left-leaning Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit.

His point is shared by Jayson Haberkorn, a fifth-grade teacher Pennington Elementary in Jefferson County.

"The big impact I see is a lack of the support staff and the resources we need to help these kids out," Haberkorn said.

That means having only a part-time social worker on staff, teacher aides who help students in classrooms, or a part-time librarian, he said.

Total program funding for school districts, including money from the state's general fund, was nearly $5.6 billion in 2009, according to data from Joint Budget Committee staff. It's now just over $5.1 billion.

Republican Rep. Tom Massey, who leads the House Education Committee, said there will be positive effects from more funding for schools. But he added that some of the changes from funding in the wake of past cuts "is going to be very gradual, very incremental."

And he said school districts will have to find ways to be innovative, perhaps going to distance learning programs and prioritizing funds. Along with some Democrats, Massey has also proposed new literacy education guidelines for the early grades. Schools wouldn't get extra money to implement the change. Massey has said they'll have to use the money they already have.

Kevin Schott, the principal of Basalt High School, said funding decreases have meant salary cuts for teachers, coaches and custodial staff.

"We are asking people to do more," he said.

In November, Schott said the community organized to help pass a $4.8 million property tax increase to ease the pain of past cuts. But that's an option that's harder to execute in poorer communities.

"We don't have that capability because of property wealth," said George Welsh, the superintendent for the Center School District in southern Colorado.

The Center district is the birthplace of a landmark lawsuit against the state over whether it's violating its constitutional promise of a "thorough and uniform" education system. Last year, a Denver district judge sided with the plaintiffs' arguments that the state's current education funding mechanism is "irrational" and leaves some students at a disadvantage.

The case is pending in the state Supreme Court. If the state loses, it will change the landscape of the state's education system because the plaintiffs argue Colorado's education system is underfunded by billions of dollars. The state's attorneys counter that meeting new funding demands will take up the majority of Colorado's general fund.

The lawsuit could force lawmakers to change the formula the state uses to fund school districts, which includes factors such as the size of the district and the number of low-income students.

For now, lawmakers are urging caution as they look to future budgets because of a fragile economic recovery and have set about $107 million aside this year into a type of savings account for schools. Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, another budget writer, told lawmakers this week not to be eager to spend it.

"I just want you to know that we're in a very tentative situation financially," she told them.