Rural school districts struggle to survive funding cuts
There are roughly two dozen students left in the Agate School District, on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
All but eight are in middle school or high school, and those students travel daily to the nearest school district that has room for them, in Byers, about 35 miles away. In good weather, that’s a 45-minute drive along unpaved roads.
There are just eight students in the Agate School, in kindergarten through fifth grade. One elementary school teacher instructs them all.
The superintendent, Kendra Ewing, is also the principal, special ed teacher, coordinator for gifted and talented services and head of the district’s English Language acquisition and parent involvement programs.
But if this year’s School Finance Act passes as introduced, all that — her job and the school itself — may come to an end.
The annual School Finance Act, which distributes state dollars to support public schools around the state, may have handed a death sentence to Agate and several other small rural school districts, mostly on the Eastern Plains.
At issue is whether some of those small districts should consolidate with neighboring districts. And that may be necessary, Ewing told The Colorado Independent, should the bill, House Bill 16-1422, pass in its current form.
But whether to consolidate is a decision that should be made by the residents of those communities, not lawmakers in Denver, according to a coalition of rural school advocates.
There are two problems with the bill, they say.
The first has to do with size. The bill changes the formula for counting the number of students in a district and the dollars tied to those counts.
Currently, the state funds small rural schools like Agate for a minimum of 50 students, even if they don’t have that many. It’s a recent change that has kept the Agate K-5 school open, although Ewing said that if that formula had been in place a couple of years earlier, the community would still have a middle school and high school.
This year’s bill changes that minimum number of students to 25. And that means Agate will lose about $175,000 out of its $500,000 budget, which the district uses both for maintaining the K-5 school in Agate and to pay for the older students who attend middle and high school in Byers.
At least a half-dozen other school districts face declining enrollments that could put them in the same boat within the next couple of years. Those include Campo, in Baca County; Kim, in Las Animas County; and Karval, in Lincoln County.
The second problem with this year’s School Finance Act deals with funding for schools that no longer can rely on local dollars to stay open.
For a half-dozen school districts rich in gold, molybdenum, coal, oil and gas, mill levies, a tax on assessed property value, have provided schools with all the funding they need.
Take Clear Creek County, where the Climax mine in Henderson, produces tons of molybdenum. The mine also sends $24 million in tax revenue to the county every year. But the mine is expected to close within the next decade. The mine’s parent company, Freeport McMoran, has started laying off employees.
And that means the local school district, which has kept its doors open solely based on local dollars, is now turning to the state for support.
The same is true for the Pawnee School District in Weld County, Genoa-Hugo in Lincoln County, and Cripple Creek in Teller County.
But the response to the funding problems in those counties, as contained in the school finance act, is likely to hurt as much as it helps.
That’s because of the negative factor.
In 2009, lawmakers, desperate to cover a $600 million shortfall in the state budget, came up with an idea: decide just how much was available for public education and cut to that figure. That became known as the negative factor. Over the course of several years, that cut grew to $1 billion.
School districts had to learn to live with less, but they did so gradually, over the course of several years. It didn’t make the cuts any less painful, but the districts had the benefit of time to plan for them.
The four school districts that now must rely on state support will receive some state funding. But whatever dollars they get, based on student enrollment, will be immediately reduced to account for the negative factor. And they will have to absorb those cuts all in one year, rather than spread out over several years, similar to how the cuts were meted out to other schools.
Rural school advocates have pleaded with the Joint Budget Committee and House leadership to modify the bill to spread out the negative factor hit over two years. The budget committee responded by suggesting the districts borrow from a $1 million emergency fund. District advocates say they would have no way to pay those loans back.
The School Finance Act is scheduled to be debated today by the full House, as are the rest of the bills in the 2016-17 budget package.
Photo credit: dcJohn, Creative Commons, Flickr.
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