Area school officials: Hand over the money, Colorado

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DENVER | State lawmakers and educators are at odds over how to fund Colorado schools in the future.

The Legislature has been tasked this year with overhauling the state’s education system without $1 billion in additional taxes, which voters overwhelmingly rejected in November.

Some elements of that question were retained this year, including backfilling money for schools lost during the recession, in a bill that’s come under fire from educators around the state. Consequently, the bill has become a lightning rod for debate among lawmakers and educators on reform in Colorado and the last decade of attempts to overhaul schools — many that failed — including Race to the Top, the failed tax measure and teacher accountability measures.

“(The bill) is full of strings, full of things we don’t need. I would argue that what’s happening at the legislature is that they’re just not listening,” said Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Harry Bull.

Nearly all Colorado superintendents, including Bull, last month sent a letter to the Legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper requesting that the state release money to the districts to help fund the so-called “negative factor.”

That factor — which Cherry Creek Schools District pegs at more than $60 million per year, Aurora Public Schools says is more than $50 million, Jefferson County Schools says is $95.6 million and Douglas County says is $74 million — is the difference between tax revenue collected and anticipated funding. Denver Public Schools has said their budget this year has been reduced by more than $50 million from 2009, in part, because of reductions from the state including the negative factor. In all, 170 superintendents out of 178 school districts in the state signed on to the letter.

Last month, Bull sent a letter to student’s parents asking them to contact their legislators regarding money for schools, particularly with a proposed bill that would help pay down the negative factor and said the Legislature is ignoring needs from schools.

“What we’re saying is ‘enough is enough,'” Bull said. “When you put all of those pieces together, right now, what we’re being told as educators — in my opinion — is that the Legislature and the governor, in their budgeting process, do not value children.”

Legislators said the problems were deeply rooted in Colorado’s education system.

“It took us several years to get into this situation, it’ll take us several years to help us get out,” said Representative Millie Hamner, D-Gunnison, during House committee testimony March 3.

That bill, called the Student Success Act, has been particularly contentious at the Capitol so far. The legislation, sponsored by Denver Democrat Mike Johnston and co-sponsored by Aurora Rep. John Buckner, a Democrat, has become a lightning rod for debate on recent education reform.

“Over the past few years, legislators have passed a number of one-size-fits-all unfunded mandates in the name of ‘reform,’ which have created serious distractions disrupting the work of the dedicated and committed professionals who work in our schools,” Bull wrote to parents in February.

The bill in essence ties money earmarked to help pay down the negative factor to yet more reforms for classrooms around the state, drawing ire from many superintendents.

The Legislature has proposed paying down the negative factor by $100 million this year. Superintendents have asked the Legislature to begin by funding $275 million toward paying down the negative factor. This year, the bill that funds schools throughout the state continues the negative factor at last year’s rate.

Superintendents like Bull have said shorting the schools that money is unconstitutional and unfair.

Buckner, who was a principal at Overland High School before becoming a state legislator, said simply paying down the negative factor wasn’t possible. The education fund is already accounted for in other school-related spending, he said, and that it wasn’t as simple as writing a check.

“It’s not as simple as plugging it back in … there have to be other considerations,” Buckner said.

“The prescriptive nature of the targeted dollars fails to address the nearly $40 million of budget cuts the district enacted over the four years,” said Jim O’Brien, president of the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education. “Coupled with the loss of over $60 million due to the reduction in Amendment 23 funding, the Cherry Creek School District is severely challenged to even come close to restoring the instructional programs, services and mental health support that our children deserve and our parent community expects.”

Also at issue are mechanisms in the state bill that would fund English language learning in schools, reform how districts and the state count students in classrooms and how districts help students better read, among other elements in the bill.

Rico Munn, superintendent for Aurora Public Schools, said the bill’s comprehensive approach to education programs was helpful, but also may not allow for better control by districts.

Lisa Escarcega, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, testified to the House committee March 3 that restrictions on spending, particularly English language learning, aren’t necessary.

“The districts need to decide what plan would address the needs of their students, and what goals should be included in that plan. We believe that districts should be held to providing assurance (to the state), just as districts do for school safety, discipline and teacher effectiveness,” she told the committee during testimony.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the effects of the recession differed between districts, however every district is looking to recover in their own way.

Urschel said the rejection of last year’s tax increase precipitated the current debate.

“If Amendment 66 was passed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” she said.

Schools have lost $2.8 billion over the last five years because of the negative factor, Urschel said. Restoring the money to schools without strings is necessary and what’s needed moving forward.

Buckner agreed, but said that negotiating a deal with the districts is how that’ll be done.

“You can’t sit still on education and our progress. If we do zero, we’ll be going backward,” he said.

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Kevin
Kevin
8 years ago

The people of Colorado and this nation are being forced to do more with less. I think the same principle (no pun intended) should apply here. I’ve never seen a district budget that reduced expenses.

Faith E Vigil-Schreder
Faith E Vigil-Schreder
8 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Oh my. So what you’re saying is that we should continue to move forward with legislation that was passed under the guise that we actually had the money to properly fund the mandate. Then when it came to fruition that we indeed did NOT have the funding, that we should carry out the mandate anyway? I can see doing the “same with less,” but do you have any idea how much it costs to fund this education overhaul? Your rationale is so simple it hurts. Let me help you. If you have a house and and took a reduction in salary at your job, you could probably scrimp and save and narrowly keep your current home. What would you do if you were told by your boss you had to buy a brand new, HUGE house and a brand new car, but don’t worry, you’ll get a promotion to pay for it…and then you got that reduction in salary instead of the promotion? Would you demand the promotion you were promised? Or, would you get rid of some the things your boss FORCED you to get? Here is the thing, our school districts are not allowed to do either. By the way, how many district budgets have you looked at lately? My guess is zero because many districts are and have been doing “more with less” for the last ten years.