Schools asking for stop-gap funds, not improvements

Entrance to Edison School in rural Yoder, 33 miles east of Colorado Springs. (Photo/Great Education Colorado)

Entrance to Edison School in rural Yoder, 33 miles east of Colorado Springs. (Photo/Great Education Colorado)

Colorado voters will be asked to approve almost $2.5 billion in school bonds and mill levies this fall to shore up crumbling infrastructure, address safety issues posed by aging school buildings and cover the increasing costs of educating the state’s more than 800,000 students.

These measures — although seemingly huge — aren’t likely to dramatically improve the state’s K-12 education but would instead act as stop-gap solutions to a school funding system that has districts turning to voters for Band-Aid fixes whenever funding problems become dire, according to some education advocates.

“This is sort of an effect of our lack of investment in education in the state,” said Lisa Weil, policy director of Greater Education Colorado (GEC), a nonpartisan group that advocates for school funding reform.

Without an increase in state education funds, schools are forced to make budget cuts, often scaling back on programs and teachers, in order to offset the rising cost of energy and health care, Weil said.

Colorado ranks 38th in the United States in both student-to-teacher ratios and per pupil funding, which is $1,034 below the national average, according to a recent report by Education Weekly, a Maryland-based education newspaper.

Voters in at least 15 school districts this fall will be asked to increase school funding in an attempt to avoid making the problem worse, Weil said.

“This isn’t the massive moving forward and reducing class size. This is trying to make up for the fact they were decimated by $4 a gallon gas … this is ‘staying alive’ stuff,” Weil said. “At some point there’s no more fat to cut, you’re going into the bone,” she added.

The Jefferson County School District, the largest district in the state, is asking voters to approve a $350 million bond and a mill levy that would raise up to $34 million annually. The district also expects to spend an additional $1 million in fuel cost during the next year, whether or not voters approve the ballot questions.

“Because costs for school districts go up faster than state funding, 2008-2009 will be the last year that [Jefferson County] schools do not experience budget reductions,” said Veronica Bennett, a district spokeswoman. If voters reject the district’s request for additional dollars, it will be forced to make $7 million worth of cuts for the 2009-2010 school year, with more cuts in subsequent years, Bennett said.

State funding for schools has been complicated by budget restrictions added to the Colorado constitution in the past 15 years, leaving local education officials to ask voters for more school funding, according to Tracie Rainey, director of the Colorado School Finance Project, an educational research organization supported by local school districts and educational organizations.

In 2000, voters passed Savings Account for Education (SAFE), which would also modify the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Proponents of the change say SAFE would offer government more flexibility when budgeting for all areas of the state’s needs, including long-term investments in K-12 and higher education.

During the 2005-2006 school year, Colorado schools spent an average of $7,649 per student, when adjusted for inflation, with 46.7 percent of the money coming from the state, 45.1 percent coming from local communities, and the federal government kicking in the remaining 8.2 percent, according to the Colorado School Finance Project.

When the state doesn’t invest in long-term educational needs, such as school buildings and updating technology, local school districts must find additional funding, Rainey said.

To combat rising costs in addition to schools that many education officials say are crumbling, some of the at least 15 districts going to the ballot this fall are taking a dual approach, asking voters to approve both bond issues, which are typically used to make one-time improvements to infrastructure, and mill levies, which fund schools’ day-to-day operations.

“They go hand in hand. Many times you build a building [and] you have to be able to have the staff. You can’t just have the infrastructure. You’ve got to be able to support it as well,” Rainey said.

For example, Aurora Public Schools is asking voters to approve a $14.7 million mill levy to fund full-day kindergarten and a pay raise for teachers aimed at attracting and keeping high-quality staff. But in a separate ballot question, voters will be asked to approve a $215 million bond, which would pay for the renovations of existing buildings, as well as the construction of a new high school and a new elementary school, according to the district’s Web site.

Rainey said many school districts carefully craft a modest list of the most critically needed items, leaving off many other needs, in order to make the requests more palatable to voters.

While passage of the local funding questions may not mean making leaps and bounds forward when it comes to Colorado schools, to supporters, success means not slipping backwards.

“If districts were not up against the wall, they wouldn’t want to go [to the ballot box], but I think these districts cannot make that choice,” Weil said.

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J.C. O'Connell

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