Part I: Picking Up the Pieces for Colorado’s Crumbling Schools

    When Democratic leaders announced a new plan to help rebuild schools using income from school trust lands, they referred to the Crumbling Classrooms study produced by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. In a two-part series, Colorado Confidential delves deeper into this study on Colorado’s deteriorating school facilities and the Democratic proposal with Matt Samelson, Director of Special Projects with the Donnell-Kay Foundation. The Donnell-Kay Foundation focuses on funding systemic reform and state level policy in the areas of early childhood, K-12, and higher education. The Foundation also provides operating and program funding to school districts and nonprofit organizations statewide, with a focus on urban schools in metro-Denver. It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization and has invested approximately $1 million to support education improvement and reform efforts in Colorado.

    Colorado Confidential: What drove the Donnell-Kay Foundation to investigate and inventory the physical conditions of schools and classrooms in Colorado?

    Matt Samelson: The Donnell-Kay Foundation’s interest in Colorado school facilities was spurred by one of our trustees, Allen Dines. Mr. Dines, who was the Colorado Speaker of the House in 1965-66, knew about the deplorable conditions of some rural schools. As the foundation started investigating the issue, the more we realized how extensive the problem was. This was in 2003, about the same time the Colorado state auditor’s office released a report pegging Colorado school’s backlog of construction and maintenance at $4.7 billion.

    Colorado Confidential: Your Crumbling Classrooms report contained some disturbing figures: 25 percent of school buildings are functionally inadequate and nearly a third of elementary schools are too small. What were some other startling findings?

    Matt Samelson: How about some more recent startling facts? As of June 2007, 82 of Colorado’s 178 school districts lacked the bonding capacity, which is statutorily set at 20 percent of the district’s assessed value, to raise enough money to build either an elementary, middle or high school.

    Elementary schools are cheaper to build than middle or high schools, so the list grows by 12 for those districts that cannot afford to build a middle school or high school. If you look at building a high school, another 19 districts get tacked on to the list. That means 113 Colorado school districts lack the bonding capacity to raise enough money to build a high school.

    On the flip side of that, there are districts in places such as Adams, El Paso, Garfield and Weld counties, where the rapidly-growing student population has required the school district to build numerous new buildings to keep up with the growth. To do this, the school district asks local voters to pass bond measures.

    More than a dozen school districts in Colorado have asked their voters to tax themselves at the highest allowable rate to build facilities, and the voters responded by doing so. These districts have reached their bonding capacity even though they very well may still have a growing student population. (See graphs at end of story.)

    Colorado Confidential: Over two years have passed between the foundation’s Crumbling Classrooms report and last week’s Democratic announcement. What steps were taken “behind the scenes” to put the report’s recommendations into action?

    Matt Samelson: Well, by no means was the Donnell-Kay Foundation the torch bearer on this issue. Kathy Gebhardt, an attorney who filed the Giardino lawsuit in 1998, has dedicated more than a decade to working on this issue and educating people about the deficiencies of our current facilities. During the past year, Kathy Gebhardt of Children’s Voices, Great Education Colorado, the Colorado School Finance Project and the Colorado Children’s Campaign sponsored numerous tours to regions of Colorado suffering from inadequate facilities. These tours were well attended by members of the Colorado State Board of Education, state and local elected officials as well as other concerned citizens.

    The Foundation has spent a considerable amount of time investigating different funding mechanisms suitable for a school facilities program, researching models from other states and producing research to increase awareness of this state need. A DVD showing several particularly hard-hit school districts was also produced.

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    Read Part II on Saturday.