On April 27 of this year, the steps of the state capitol were occupied with 25,000 teachers and allies, demanding attention be turned toward the snowballing financial crisis set to destroy our public education system. Culminating in a combination of complicated tax laws, overpaid superintendents, and underfunded teacher pensions, our teachers find themselves fighting a political battle with those who refuse to pay attention to the front lines and have allowed a snowball to build for 25 years, with very few attempts to slow its pace. As a result, Colorado residents are now facing a boulder of ice and apathy, with our children dead in its path.
While the blame may be shouldered by too many to name, the cause of the problem traces back as far as 1982 with the Gallagher Amendment. State and local legislators at the time were burdened with the task of balancing local budgets, so no more than 55% of property tax revenue was produced by businesses and no more than 45% was produced by residential real estate. Homeowners are not taxed on the entire value of their homes; instead, an assessment rate is applied, and property taxes are determined by the assessed value instead of the actual value of the real estate. Assessment rates were adjusted to ensure this 45/55 split was maintained. Raising these rates ensures that local treasuries are projected during times when real estate value fluctuates. In theory, raising and lowering assessment rates to adjust the amount taxed protects homeowners from carrying an unfair tax burden.
Stuff Is Messed Up
In 1986, Douglas Bruce acquired several rental properties in the Colorado Springs area ahead of his move from his home state of California. You may recognize him as the politician who was recently arrested in 2010 for using his charity as a tax shelter to launder money and commit tax fraud, or as the interim state representative who kicked a staff photographer for Rocky Mountain News on the morning he was sworn into office back in 2007. In addition to all of this, he is the man who passed out business cards that read “Douglas Bruce: Terrorist” while working to pass what would become his crowning achievement and lasting legacy in Colorado. In 1992, he used his political prowess to amend the state constitution to throttle funding from our state institutions. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) may have been fed to us as a well-intentioned measure by Douglas Bruce to ensure civilians never pay more to the state than they’re comfortable with. However, sometimes our society requires more than what we are comfortable with to ensure prosperity for the future. In the case of
TABOR, our educators, law enforcement, firefighters, and many other state institutions count on the public to vote for interests greater than their own tax obligations. Unfortunately, this is an expectation that is frequently unmet.
While assessment rates on real estate could be lowered without consent of the taxpayer under the new amendment, any time local municipalities required rates to rise to fit current market value, a vote was needed. In 1982, the assessment rate for residential real estate was set at 21%. By 2003, it had dropped to 7.96%. In the late ‘90s, Colorado saw a dip in home value causing a lack of necessary local property tax that significantly impacted teachers salary as a result of failed votes to raise the assessed rate. By 2000, teachers were in dire need of legislative assistance in the face of a rising cost of living. To alleviate the financial burden caused by TABOR, Amendment 23 of the state constitution was passed requiring public educators’ pay to increase at the rate of cost of living plus an additional 1% to close to the gap left by years of neglect. In the years following, our teachers were able to catch a breath and receive appropriate pay, but in 2007, real estate value would once again drop, causing a strain on tax revenue that would force legislators to bend the rules.
With municipality coffers run dry, the state used a portion of its education budget to support school districts with exceptionally low funding. While this solved current problems many legislators understood, this meant underfunding the Public Employee Retirement Association putting the future of teachers’ finances at risk. When Amendment 23 was passed, the amount a district was supposed to receive by the state was increased according to the number of teachers employed and the cost of living within the municipality. In 2009, when it became obvious the afflictions caused by antiquated tax laws would only get worse, our legislators voted to reinterpret the law. The state is required by law to fund schools without telling them how to spend their money. While legislators were required by law to increase funding according to appropriate teacher compensation, they chose to invent a negative factor within the equation used to measure funding given to districts per student. This equation was full of many factors, including cost of living, number of at risk students (defined by a number of students that qualify for free meals), and total student body count. With the inclusion of the arbitrary negative factor, state bean counters were able to justify spending significantly less on a district than what was required to keep the institution functional. The first year Amendment 23 was reinterpreted, a little over $100 million was cut from education funding statewide, but that amount would continue to increase. By the 2014 school year, education would be slashed by an alarming $1 billion per year. The state, realizing the dilemma, made sure to piggyback any marijuana legislation with a clause stating some of the tax revenue produced by the new industry would go directly to education. When Amendment 64 was implemented, $40 million of the revenue would go towards maintenance and construction needed throughout the state, while another $75 million would go toward a grant accessible by any school that had a reasonable request for the funding. While $115 million may seem like a significant amount of money, it pales in comparison to the $1 billion a year the state was unable to pay.
Why Don’t You Get A Job
Our school systems have been at the front lines of this tax battle since TABOR and Gallagher were amended in ‘92 and ‘82, respectively. Colorado presently stands 40th in the country for student-per-dollar ratio and 47th in the country for special needs student-per-dollar ratio. When Gallagher was passed in ‘82, Colorado spent $232 more per student than the national average, and in 2017, Colorado spent $2,685 per student lower than the national average. Since 2000, more than twice as many schools have had to switch to a four day week, and currently, 88 out of Colorado’s 178 districts do not have the funding to support a full, five-day schedule. Colorado ranks dead last in the country for competitive teacher pay, and only Florida ranks lower than us for number of inexperienced teachers in the workforce. Last year, 3,000 teacher positions went unfilled as administrators struggled to find educators willing to teach in an institution entirely incapable of providing its staff with appropriate pay.
While digesting the statistics, it is obvious Colorado education is more than knee deep in financial problems. While state legislators argue over whether or not the Public Employee Retirement Association needs to be reworked or how far they can finagle the negative factor, our teachers are struggling to pay their bills. As our state legislators debate over the best ways beat a dead horse, schools are cutting counseling programs, English as a second language assistance, and technology education forcing our teachers to earn less as they drown in a sea of increasing responsibility. While our community is not short of individuals willing to pour their talents and skills into making our society thrive, the task of educating our future has become too overwhelming to ask for the next generation of teachers. With 30% of the education workforce slated to retire within the next five years, our schools are under threat of lacking the staff required to teach a state buckling under its own growth.
Hurting As One
This is not a problem that will disappear on its own. Ignoring the problem has resulted in near destruction of the institution we rely on to prepare our children’s futures. Corporate media silence for the benefit of tax cuts via the dismantling of our most expensive, but wholly necessary, social faculty has kept the public in the dark. Vulture capitalists and network conglomerates spun stories that lead you to believe the greedy teachers are after more money to trick out their ‘98 Camrys. The truth is as a result of inadequate funding due to TABOR our community is already seeing the repercussions of mass apathy.
For over 10 years, Colorado has ranked among the top 20% for cocaine use in the U.S., with the latest Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimate placing us third in the country. As crime rises, rape is slated to hit an almost 40-year high for the Centennial State. The CDC has listed Colorado in the top 10 highest suicide rates for more than 20 years. While everyone is busy checking if their town made it on this round of Best Places to Raise Your Family, our state made it to the top of every list you hope your mom doesn’t read when she hears your “moving west to write a nonfiction narrative”. While these statistics may seem off-topic, they all point towards the reality that our state is experiencing an implosion that threatens the fabric of the Front Range. While TABOR was imposed to give the taxpayer more power, you’d have to wonder who really benefits from legislation with such an obviously negative impact. We were fed a lie by a greedy California lawyer who gave us just enough rope to hang ourselves.
Get It Right
The path we’re headed down is clear, but rest assured, we do not currently find ourselves at the end of Douglas Bruce’s greatest gift. In order to save our state and our children’s futures, we need to recognize this is not an issue of partisanship. Debating the merits of charter schools versus the public education system, or whether the burden of the societal bill should land on the taxpayer, is not going to do anything for our current failing faculties. Education in parts of Colorado is reverting back to the one-room schoolhouse while we refuse to fix what we have in the name of freedom from taxation. Until a new plan is in place, the answer is clear: we must abolish TABOR and allow our state representatives to establish where the money comes from and how much everyone gets. If we continue to hinder the established process our state will continue to suffer. Vote for politicians who understand our complex tax law and its failures. Support gubernatorial candidates like Cary Kennedy, who want to limit the restrictions TABOR has. Pressure your politicians to support ballot initiative 93, which will produce $1.6 billion annually in earmarked funds for our public school system while only raising taxes for 8% of the state population. Use every bit of power we have as citizens of Colorado to hold our leaders accountable and fix problems that have been plaguing the wallets of our state and municipalities for 30 years.
We owe it to the educators who made us who we are, the police and firemen who protect us from ourselves and the elements, and our offspring who need as much as they can get to fill our fine shoes. That snowball is rolling down the mountains, and unless we stop it in its tracks, it will leave a path of destruction too massive to fix.