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Colorado Springs schools still awaiting windfall from marijuana taxes

June 22, 2017 Updated: June 23, 2017 at 6:19 am
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photo - FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012, file photo a caregiver picks out a marijuana bud for a patient at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012, file photo a caregiver picks out a marijuana bud for a patient at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File) 

Five years after Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana with the understanding that some of the taxes collected from sales would help public schools, many education officials are still saying, "Show me the money."

"There is a common misperception that marijuana solved the state budget problem, and it didn't," said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11.

Additional proceeds from cannabis sales taxes soon will be available for schools, but education officials say it won't make a dent in offsetting state cuts to education.

Only one Pikes Peak region school will benefit from recreational marijuana tax collections earmarked for school construction projects in the fiscal year that starts next week.

The Colorado State Board of Education last week approved 28 maintenance or construction proposals statewide to receive funding from the Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, program.

On the list is Community Prep Charter School, an alternative high school in Colorado Springs D-11, which will get a grant for $49,262 to upgrade its 80-year-old pneumatic elevator system. The school will contribute another $77,051, or 61 percent, in matching funds from its capital reserve fund.

"We're in our 10th cycle - it started in 2008 and has been very successful and particularly beneficial for small and rural districts across the state," said Jim Owens, director of the capital construction office of the Colorado Department of Education.

The BEST program awarded $70 million in cash grants and $123.1 million in lease-purchase grants that will need to be repaid, and is requiring $102.5 million in matching contributions from recipients for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Of that, $40 million comes from the 15 percent excise tax on wholesale recreational marijuana sales. In total, $200 million in marijuana taxes were collected last fiscal year. Through May, $191.8 million in taxes had been collected this fiscal year.

BEST funds school construction projects addressing safety, security and health issues. Proposals range from replacing roofs and mechanical systems to renovating classrooms and building new schools.

So far, traditional D-11 schools have not received any direct revenue as a result of marijuana taxes, Gustafson said.

"Their highest priority remains the economic wealth of the community, so rural areas tend to get funded more," he said.

Replacing a leaking roof at another local charter school, Atlas Preparatory School in Harrison School District 2, was named as one of three backup projects. It will receive BEST funding only if another school fails to meet its matching grant requirement.

State Land Trust funds, collected on state land leases, rights-of-way and mineral production royalties, contribute the majority of the money to the BEST pot.

Since 2014, when cannabis taxes started being included in BEST grants, 5.4 percent of the funds have come from recreational marijuana taxes.

Recent changes will provide more funding for BEST grants.

In this past legislative session, lawmakers added $5 million more of marijuana excise taxes to fund technology improvements at public schools statewide.

"It's a recent change, so we're waiting for language and are putting together a process to establish rule-making this fall," Owens said.

Also, legislation approved in 2016 created a board to oversee collections of marijuana excise taxes over $40 million, which is $25.3 million in this fiscal year through May.

Starting July 1, $21 million of that will pay for K-12 education through the annual School Finance Act, and another $10 million, minus board expenses, will be credited to the BEST program. That amount will increase to $20 million, again, less board expenses, beginning in 2019.

However, education leaders point out that while millions of additional dollars may seem like a lot, the coming year's budget carries an expected $880 million "negative factor" - the amount the state has underfunded schools compared with its obligations under the School Finance Act, which lawmakers have allowed to balance the budget.

Marijuana taxes from both medical and recreational pot sales also subsidize grants for substance abuse education and counseling at schools, bullying prevention programs, drop-out prevention efforts and in 2016-2017, early literacy grants for K-3 curriculum.

Three local school districts received grants in 2015 to fund substance abuse prevention and mental health initiatives with marijuana taxes: Cripple Creek-Victor School District RE-1 was awarded $48,296, Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 got $244,179, and Manitou Springs School District 14 received $51,739.

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