DENVER — Smiling schoolchildren and a bright school bus hauled boxes of petitions to Denver on Monday as activists pushed for the largest voter-approved permanent tax hike in state history to overhaul education funding.
The petitions call for placing a tax measure on the November ballot asking voters to hike income taxes nearly $1 billion a year to pay for school upgrades and new accountability efforts.
Groups supporting the school finance overhaul said they delivered more than 160,000 signatures — nearly twice the required number to get the measure on ballots.
State elections officials have 30 days to verify the signatures and decide if the school tax goes to voters.
If passed, the additional income tax money would be spent on statewide, full-day kindergarten, expanded access to free preschool and other upgrades.
The taxes would also pay for what supporters call the nation's first tracker software allowing voters to see how their local district spends every dollar on teacher salaries, pensions, classroom instruction, tutoring and other expenses.
State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the funding overhaul, called the overhaul a bold plan to bring "efficiency metrics" to education.
"They'll be able to track every day where every single taxpayer dollar goes into the system," Johnston said.
To pay for the changes, Colorado's current income tax rate of 4.63 percent would be raised to 5 percent on earnings up to $75,000 a year and 5.9 percent for earnings above that threshold.
A person with a taxable income of $45,000 would pay an additional $166.50 a year. Someone with a taxable income of $100,000 a year would pay an extra $595 annually.
Opponents say the tax hike is too big and the overhaul doesn't make the right kinds of changes to improve schools. Some critics wanted to see more money for charter schools, while others complain that it doesn't contain adequate safeguards that the extra money would be spent only on the changes supporters tout.
"It's not going to improve Colorado schools," Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton warned Monday in kicking off an opposition campaign.
All Republicans in the Legislature voted against the overhaul. Some pointed out Monday that Colorado's rebounding economy would make the overhaul possible without a permanent income-tax hike.
"We have the ability to fund it with no increase in taxes," Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said.
Ami Prichard, a social studies teacher from Littleton who gathered signatures with other members of the state's largest teachers' union, brought her children to see the petitions dropped off at the Secretary of State's office and said the extra money is sorely needed.
Prichard gathered signatures outside concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater and visited parks to promote the funding overhaul.
"Almost to a person, everybody agrees that the funding in education is a problem," Prichard said. "Some people don't want to pay taxes to fix it, but everybody seems to know we have to do something."