Education fund challenged

Legislation would outlaw Steamboat's half-cent sales tax for schools

State Rep. Keith King has proposed legislation that would outlaw Steamboat Springs' half-cent sales tax for education, which raises about $1.8 million annually for small class-size, technology, capital projects and other items.

School district officials vowed to fight the proposal and promised a legal battle if it survives the legislative process and becomes law. "I know we would have to challenge it," Superintendent Donna Howell said. "It's in total conflict with the whole concept of local control."

King's provision is part of the school finance bill he will present today to the General Assembly's Joint Education Committee.

State Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, represents Steamboat Springs and serves on the House Education Committee. School district officials said White would fight King's provision by offering an amendment to exclude it.

King's bill would prevent public school districts from accepting or expending revenue generated or donated by other governmental entities. Revenue from the half-cent sales tax -- approved by voters in 1993, 1996 and 1999 -- is controlled and allocated by the nonprofit Education Fund Board, a 13-member group comprised of community members and four School Board members.

District officials spent Monday and Tuesday in Denver lobbying for King's provision to be removed from the bill.

Revenue from the sales tax pays the salaries of more than a dozen district employees, including 10 classroom teachers and the directors of content standards and technology. Losing that money will be devastating to the district, Howell said.

"It would eliminate programs and put us in a position where we could not continue with the class sizes we have," Howell said.

Howell met with King twice Tuesday and was unable to convince him to remove the language. However, Howell said King was receptive to the district's argument defending the legality of the sales tax.

"I think we made some headway with Rep. King," Howell said after a meeting with King, White and school district attorney Richard Lyons. "I really believe he understood Lyons' position."

The district maintains the half-cent sales tax is legal, and an opinion presented by Lyons cites numerous Colorado Supreme Court decisions backing that stance, Howell said.

King's concern is that allowing districts such as Steamboat to collect additional revenue creates an unfair advantage over poorer communities and goes against the equity sought through the state's public schools finance formula.

King, R-Colorado Springs, is a charter school advocate who also has proposed legislation giving the state the authority to create charter schools when local districts refuse to do so. That bill was partly in response to Steamboat's refusal to follow the State Board of Education's orders to accept a Montessori charter school application. King continues to push the charter school legislation, though the Steamboat Springs School District recently reached an agreement with Montessori advocates.

Steamboat Springs officials think King's school finance provision is retaliation for the district's charter school stance.

"It has everything to do with Montessori," said Jim Gill, president of the Education Fund Board. If King were concerned about equity for all districts, his provision also would prevent school systems from collecting money from other legal sources, Gill said.

"If it's really an equity issue, let's carry it all the way," he said. "Let's eliminate booster clubs and fund-raisers, too."

King said his opposition to the sales tax has nothing to do with charter schools. "This is a whole different issue," he said.

A lawyer from the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Legal Services issued King an opinion that a district's collection of sales-tax revenue is illegal. That opinion, as well as testimony from Howell and Lyons, is scheduled to be part of today's committee meeting.

"If it's legal, I have no problem with it," King said Tuesday. "If it's not legal, then I think we need a statewide policy about it."

Howell thinks some lawmakers didn't understand the education funds are administered by a nonprofit citizens group instead of the district. The difference could be critical in the district's argument against the bill, she said.

School Board members Pat Gleason and Paula Stephenson met Tuesday with state Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, who will sponsor the school finance bill in the Senate. Anderson expressed support for removing King's provision from the bill should the provision make it to the Senate, Howell said.

The bill is not expected to go to committee vote today, Howell said.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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