Why Marijuana Tax Money Can't Prevent DPS School Closures

George Washington High School is among the few Denver Public Schools facility to benefit from marijuana-tax money.
George Washington High School is among the few Denver Public Schools facility to benefit from marijuana-tax money. Google Maps
The Denver Public Schools plan to close and consolidate five low-attendance schools — the focus of a tense public-comment session on November 14 — is scheduled for a vote by DPS Board of Education members tomorrow, November 17. In the meantime, parents of kids attending the targeted facilities are asking questions about ways to prevent the move, including this one: Can marijuana tax money earmarked for schools keep these five open?

The answer to that question is simple: No. But the reasons are a lot more complicated.

The State of Colorado web page devoted to marijuana taxes explains that 2012's Amendment 64, which allows adults age 21 and older to consume and possess up to one ounce of marijuana, required the General Assembly to enact an excise tax on retail cannabis, with the first $40 million in revenue set aside "to fund public-school construction."

This wording is important, notes DPS spokesperson Scott Pribble, since "funds that support education from marijuana are allocated for capital construction, not operating expenses" at existing schools. So that rules out immediate help for Denver Discovery School, Schmitt Elementary, Fairview Elementary, International Academy of Denver at Harrington and Math and Science Leadership Academy — the quintet currently on the chopping block.

The state collects both marijuana retail sales tax and an excise tax, and they're distributed differently. One-tenth of the 15 percent tax on marijuana retail sales is allocated to local governments, while the remainder is split up between the marijuana tax cash fund (71.85 percent), the state's general fund (15.56 percent) and the state public school fund (12.59 percent).

Meanwhile, revenue from the marijuana excise tax goes to the BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) fund. Its website boasts that "since 2008, BEST has awarded approximately $2.5 billion in grants to more than 525 Colorado schools, improving health, safety and security for nearly 300,000 students" thanks to the marijuana excise tax and funding from the Colorado State Land Board and the Colorado Lottery, plus "local matching dollars."

Not much of this cash has reached Denver Public Schools, though. "DPS has applied for BEST funds in the past, but these funds are typically allocated to rural schools," Pribble notes. The only exception he can recall occurred in the 2019-202 academic year, when "DPS was awarded $7.8 million in BEST funds for fire sprinklers at George Washington High School and to replace galvanized piping at Denver Language Middle School."

The next meeting of the DPS Board of Education is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 17, at 1860 Lincoln Street. Click for more details.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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