Colorado’s wildly inequitable preK-12 revenue system, Part II: Mill Levy Overrides and Bonds
In the second installment of our series on school finance in Colorado, we detailed a key structural problem with our methods for collecting property tax revenue for preK-12 education. That story described inequality in total program mill levies, which are set every year in statute and cannot be changed by voters. This week, we explain an additional layer of inequality in our school finance system: the ability of local voters to approve mill levy overrides or bonds.
Let’s start with mill levy overrides.
When a school district wants to spend more revenues than they are authorized or required to spend on students by our state’s school funding formula, that district must seek approval from its voters to raise “override” property tax revenues. These additional dollars stay in the district and do not affect the amount of state funding that the district is eligible to receive.
Often, override dollars are used to increase teacher pay, purchase new curriculum, fund early childhood education, or invest in technology updates. However, because of reductions to funding at the state level since the recession, in the recent past several mill levy override proposals reference making up for those cuts as the reason for requesting additional local funding.
As we’ve explained previously, differences in property wealth exacerbate inequities at the local level. In districts with lower property wealth, one mill raises less than $20 per student, while in districts with higher levels of property wealth, one mill raises more than $3,000 per student. The property wealth per student in Aspen School District is 76 times higher than the property wealth per student in Sanford School District, as just one example.
What about bonds?
If we think of mill levy overrides as supporting what happens inside of a school building, bonds support the school building itself. A bond request asks voters if the district can take on more debt to meet its capital needs. When bonds are approved, school districts hire underwriters to sell bonds, and the money that is generated can only be used for construction, maintenance or infrastructure needs. We explained more about bonds in KidsFlash last year.
Contributing to an inequitable system
Since the recession, student needs have increased across Colorado as our student population has also increased, but state funding for schools has not kept pace. In the absence of a statewide funding solution to our school finance challenges, school districts have turned to local voters to cobble together 178 local solutions. This adds another layer of inequity to our system.
The combination of total program mill levies and mill levy overrides means that poor districts may be taxing themselves at the highest allowable rate but generating negligible amounts of funding, while other very wealthy districts can generate substantial amounts of funding by raising their property taxes by a relatively small amount, thus exacerbating inequities from district to district.
Many school districts have asked their voters multiple times for additional dollars to supplement state funding and have been unsuccessful every time. Brighton, for example, has asked for an override six times since 2003 and all have failed. Unfortunately, until steps are taken to modernize Colorado’s wildly inequitable funding formula and unequal statewide revenue system for K-12 education, local school districts will have to continually ask local voters for their support.
Mill levy override and bond elections in Colorado this fall
This fall, school districts across the state will ask voters for additional revenue. At least 36 bond or mill levy override questions will appear on local ballots, with several districts asking both of voters. The Colorado School Finance Project lists which districts are moving forward with bonds and mill levy overrides, the amount they are asking for, and the purposes for which revenue will be used.
Check back after the election for an update on how school districts fare in this election.