Marijuana tax money hasn’t resulted in cash for Aurora schools

356

AURORA | Colorado’s green-friendly laws aren’t translating into greenbacks for metro area school districts.

The state’s landmark 2012 retail marijuana law hasn’t amounted to the promised millions of dollars for many local students, despite widespread public opinion to the contrary. That’s creating a ballooning misconception of how public schools are financed, according to area superintendents.

“People keep asking me, ‘Where’s the pot money?’” Harry Bull, superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, wrote in an Aug. 23 email to the CCSD community. “The short answer is that the Cherry Creek School District hasn’t received any.”

Indeed, CCSD, which will ask voters to approve both a mill levy override and a $250 million bond issue this fall, has not received any money generated from state marijuana taxes, according to Bull and district spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

Despite a hefty 20 percent tax on recreational marijuana in Arapahoe County (and 20.5 percent in Adams County), public school districts in Aurora aren’t seeing those funds.

It’s not that pot tax money isn’t being set aside for schools. The majority of marijuana revenues destined for education, about $40 million, go toward the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today grant, which provides funds for mostly rural school districts to reconstruct aging or inadequate schools. The remainder of tax revenues are granted to a bevy of state agencies, which must use the money for various health care, education, substance abuse and law enforcement programs.

“It was not a criticism, at all, of how the money is being spent… but we needed to correct the impression that there were all these tax dollars that were supporting education funding in every school district,” Amole said.

She added that about $380 million has been withheld from Cherry Creek schools since 2012 due to funding prohibitions that are tied to the state’s controversial Amendment 23. CCSD would face a budget shortfall of about $20 million in 2017-18 if voters were to reject the district’s bond and budget package.

The total tax revenue generated by the sale of recreational marijuana in 2014-15 was $77.9 million, or about 1 percent of the overall state revenue, according to the Colorado Fiscal Institute.

Municipal taxes on marijuana can be more creatively allocated, as evidenced by the millions of dollars the Aurora City Council has reserved for various homeless iniatives around the city. However, none of the city tax revenues on recreational pot are specifically earmarked for public schools, according to City Spokeswoman Julie Patterson.

The lingering myth of Colorado’s great green savior has also persisted in Aurora Public Schools, according to APS Superintendent Rico Munn.

“We certainly get that question,” Munn said of the tangled web of marijuana tax revenues and school funding. “I don’t think it’s coming up any more than other questions. It’s just part of the mix of people trying to understand what is a very complex mixture for school finance.”

Next year, APS is slated to receive a sizable chunk of funds generated by marijuana sales in the form of a $16 million BEST grant to assist with the reconstruction of Mrachek Middle School. If awarded, the package would be one of the largest ever granted by the BEST program. But that money will only be gifted if voters in the district approve a $300 million bond issue this fall. If the bond is approved, the district will contribute an additional $24 million to complete the project. The district has received smaller BEST grants in the past, including an award of about $826,000 to restore the roof on Aurora Central High School in 2014.

Still, Munn echoed Bull’s thoughts on the misconceptions surrounding the tangled web of pot tax dollars and school finance.

“I think it’s tough to communicate, in general, to the community about how schools are funded,” Munn said. “Everybody, generally, has a feeling that they pay taxes and these things should be taken care of. We want to make sure that it’s clear to people that we’re talking about 178 school districts (in Colorado) and a lot of students who have unique needs in each school district.”

A more impactful solution for bridging educational funding shortfalls could be found in a state constitutional amendment, according to Bull.

“To offer our students the resources they need to learn, we need a much more profound change at the state level, one that comes down to real and lasting change,” he wrote in his letter. “It comes down to spelling out our collective priorities as Coloradans, to urging our elected representatives to do the hard work and make sure that students in Colorado receive the funding spelled out by a voter-approved constitutional amendment.”