(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Colorado schools starting to see pot tax revenue for capital projects

As marijuana revenues trickle into the state, slow to meet projections, a few Colorado school districts are among the first to see some impact from the state’s new funds.

The state Department of Education’s program to fund capital projects — known as Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, grants — had received more than $1.1 million from marijuana taxes in May when it made the annual award recommendations.

The state also is readying another $2.5 million from pot taxes so interested schools can hire health professionals.

The additional capital project money has been welcomed as the state fund for the BEST grants has been declining and the program reached a cap for the financed grants it could issue through bonds.

“We can only issue cash grants now, so it limits what we can issue significantly,” said Scott Newell, director for the division of capital construction at the Department of Education. “That’s why the excise tax will help grow that fund, but it will take some time to build up that industry.”

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The marijuana excise tax — which is 15 percent on the wholesale price of cultivated marijuana — netted about $3 million from January through June 30. The education department receives the funds monthly and will dole out the awards recommendations every May.

Next year, officials estimate the pot contribution to the BEST grants will be about $10 million. But some school officials say there’s a misconception about where the pot money is going.

“I feel like the word on the streets is marijuana funding is going to schools, but certainly it’s not going to schools for operating costs,” said Ryan Elarton, director of business services for the Pueblo district. “And not every district gets it.”

Besides the new marijuana funds, BEST grants have been funded by sources including money from the state land trust and spillover from Powerball profits after funding the Great Outdoors Colorado fund.

Last year, the BEST had its smallest pool of funding for grants since the program started in 2008.

This year, fewer cash grants were awarded than last year. The department was able to fund 26 grants of the 48 that were submitted, less than last year’s 32 awarded out of 63 received. But this year’s cumulative amount of the grants, $16.4 million, is more than last year’s $9 million.

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The largest grant awarded in May was a $24.9 million financed grant to the Morgan County School District Re-3 to replace a middle school.

Of the cash grants, the largest was one for more than $3 million to Pueblo County School District 70 for fire and safety improvements to bring schools to code so an ongoing expansion project at a high school can continue.

Aurora Public Schools received two grants — the first time being approved for more than one per year. One is to replace a part of a roof at a high school and the other for mechanical work at one of the district’s oldest schools.

Amy Spatz, director of construction management and support for Aurora schools, said the district would have had to wait to pass a bond without the grant.

“We compete with salaries and instructional materials. There’s never enough money for capital projects,” Spatz said.

“Even when we go to voters, we don’t fund every single project we know we need to do. Maintenance just gets deferred more and more frequently.”

Nurses, counselors and psychologists in Colorado schools have been another loss from school budget cuts.

From other marijuana revenue appropriated by the legislature, $2.5 million has been set aside to increase the presence of health professionals in schools.

Schools that apply for those grants and win could have that money by January.

School officials already are calling to find out how soon they can apply for the grant. In general, officials estimate the money could fund 35 to 40 new full-time health care professionals.

“We’re hoping of course that this will help schools identify and help students that are showing signs of substance abuse and mental health problems,” said Sarah Mathew, director of health and wellness at the Colorado Department of Education, “hoping that we are more equipped to handle those kids.”

Yesenia Robles: 303-954-1372, yrobles@denverpost.com or twitter.com/yeseniarobles

Update made Aug. 31, 2 p.m.: The 15 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana is for wholesale transfers, paid by marijuana businesses.

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This story was first published on DenverPost.com