Colorado school districts will get more money for students with more serious disabilities under a Public School Finance Act that received initial Senate approval Tuesday.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, successfully amended Senate Bill 246 to add $22 million in increased funding for students with autism spectrum disorders, visual and hearing impairments, traumatic brain injuries and certain other conditions that require more services to meet their educational needs.

“This is a critical amendment to our school finance formula that will make a really significant impact for our special needs students,” Zenzinger said.

A portion of that money, $5 million, comes from a special allocation for rural school districts. Those districts still have an additional $20 million in extra money, with a new requirement that they report back on how the money was spent.

“I’m actually excited about that, because rural schools want to tell you where they’re spending the money,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican.

After a final Senate vote Wednesday, the $7.4 billion bill goes to the House. Average per pupil funding under the measure is $8,476, up about 4.3 percent from the current year. The measure also includes $100 million to pay down money owed to districts after recession-era budget cuts.

Zenzinger said her amendment will increase special education funding from 31.4 percent of the actual cost for such students to 47.5 percent. Students with lesser needs are supposed to receive an additional $1,250 each, while those with more severe needs, what’s known as Tier B, are supposed to get an extra $6,000 on top of that. In reality, the state gives districts far less.

“We are shortchanging our special education students by $5,366,” she said.

And in a relatively rare occurrence in the General Assembly’s waning days, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised the annual bill, which sets spending rates for the state’s school districts.

“What we have in front of us is as good a compromise as I’ve seen in my 13 years,” Sonnenberg said.

“It’s a solid message for us to say how important public education is,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and bill co-sponsor.

But state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and Joint Budget Committee member, still lamented Colorado’s inequitable funding formula, which balances general fund money from the state with locally set property taxes. He abandoned a plan to try to change the system this session.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t solve those problems on an interim committee that’s met for two years and it looks like is going to meet again,” Rankin said. “It’s not politically acceptable to raise the taxes on a few people to lower the taxes on a lot of others.”

The Senate also approved a second bill that would create a grant fund for districts serving special needs students with educational costs exceeding $100,000 or 2.5 percent of the school’s expenses. Senate Bill 66 takes $2.5 million in marijuana tax money to set up an interest-earning fund, and would use nearly $55,000 annually to provide at least one or two grants to schools. 

Colorado already has a fund to which school districts can apply for help with students with particularly high costs, but it doesn’t have enough money to cover every request.