Colorado Referendum J

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Current law in Colorado requires school districts to set aside money for specific purposes from within the total budget, such as buildings and insurance, books and other school supplies, and services for "at-risk" students. These specific budgetary earmarks account on average for approximately $600 per student according to 2004-2005 school year figures — roughly eight percent of district operating budgets. Referendum J proposes a new requirement, that each school district spend a minimum of 65% of its operating budget on a set of budget items specified in the referendum.

Budget Items[edit]

Referendum J would require that 65% of school district operating budgets be spent on the following budgetary items:

  • Books and Other Instructional Materials
  • Classroom Computers
  • Field Trips, Athletics, Arts, and Music
  • Libraries and Librarians
  • Principals
  • Support Services Provided at the School Level
    • College Placement Services
    • Food Services
    • Student Health and Medical Services
    • Student Testing
    • Teacher Training
    • Transportation
  • Support Staff
    • Bus Drivers
    • Food Service Workers
    • Guidance Counselors
    • Nurses
  • Teachers, Classroom Aides, and Tutors

Notably absent from the budgetary earmarks in Referendum J are:

  • Superintendents and School Boards
  • Building Construction, Maintenance, and Repairs
  • Central Administrative Functions
    • Accounting
    • Budgeting
    • Payroll

Corrective action[edit]

Schools that fall short of budgetary requirements set forth in Referendum J would be required to increase budgetary earmarks for specified items by two percent per year until minimums are met. Provisions are made for districts to request a waiver for a period of one year. Referendum J allows voters to exempt specific districts from its budgetary requirements, and standardizes budget submission formats to the state to facilitate tracking of Referendum J compliance.

Estimated fiscal impact[edit]

The Colorado Department of Education's oversight of Referendum J requirements is expected to increase state costs by approximately $62,000 annually. School district costs may also be increased by requiring more detailed expenditure tracking, budget planning, and budget submission procedures introduced with Referendum J if it passes. Referendum J does not increase funding for public education.

Differences with Amendment 39[edit]

Also on the 2006 ballot is Amendment 39, a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, which also proposes changes to school district budgetary requirements. Notably different is the fact that Amendment 39 does not require that any of the earmarked 65% of funding go to principals, support staff, or support services provided at the school level.

The two ballot items also define a district's operating budget differently, which can affect various districts differently. Using the 2004-2005 school year as an example, the budget expenditures on items specified in Referendum J received 83% of district operating budgets on average, already well over the 65% that would be required by the new law, while according to Amendment 39's budget definitions only 60% of the budget was already spent in that year on the budget items specified by Amendment 39.

Aside from the average, however, individual school budget analyses show that at least some schools in the state failed to meet the 65% requirements set forth by each of the ballot proposals. 166 school districts would have fallen short by a total of $278 million according to the requirements of Amendment 39, while three districts would have fallen short for a total of approximately one million dollars under the requirements of Referendum J, if they had both been in effect for the 2004-2005 school year.

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