How School Funding Works
Unsurprisingly, many citizens are confused about the complicated ways that schools are funded, and why we can't simply use the dollars we raised to build new schools to pay teachers higher salaries. We all fundamentally agree, however, that teachers are our most important asset; that teachers deserve a living wage; and that teachers are more important than buildings for student learning. In light of the current discussion on Colorado’s low education funding, and our teachers’ low salaries, let us clarify a few things about our funding sources.
School buildings are funded through a different mechanism than teacher salaries in Colorado. In short, buildings are funded through local taxpayer-approved bonds. These are one-time funds that can only be used for capital improvements. In 2015, taxpayers voted in support of a $122 million bond issue that funded the recent building construction and upgrades across the district.
Schools get their operating dollars, of which 83% are salaries and benefits, through a state-set formula that determines how many dollars schools will get for each student they educate. When factoring inflation, state funding for Colorado schools (and thus Colorado teacher salaries) has actually declined over the past ten years.
There is a third funding mechanism, called a mill levy override, which allows local taxpayers to approve up to an additional 25% of per pupil funding for students in their districts. Those funds can be used for operations as well, including salary increases. Roaring Fork voters have generously approved 18% above the per pupil dollars awarded through the state formula. Even with this infusion, Roaring Fork average teacher salaries are $7,000 behind the average national teacher salary.
Spending less on buildings is not a solution to staff salaries. Even if we didn't update our facilities to address overcrowding, support modern learning, and enhance safety and security, we couldn’t shift the capital savings into salaries. And if we don't upgrade our facilities, they end up costing us more to operate.
There are, however, two possible solutions. First, and most importantly, is to increase funding from the state. That will require a massive overhaul of state tax laws and funding formulas. Second is the potential for local voters to approve an additional mill levy override, which could potentially bring in a maximum of about a 6% increase in operating dollars for schools.