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

    In a two-part series, Colorado Confidential delves deeper into the Crumbling Classroom study on Colorado’s deteriorating school facilities and the Democratic proposal to fix schools with Matt Samelson, Director of Special Projects with the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Read Part I here.Colorado Confidential: What were top recommendations in the report?

    Matt Samelson: This report is slightly more than two years old. While the core principles behind the recommendations remain, there’s a component to these recommendations that begins with the assumption of “If we had the money to address Colorado’s school facility needs…”

      The proposal presented by the Treasurer, Speaker of the House and President of the Senate has identified a source of revenue that does not raise taxes and will allow the state to begin addressing school facility needs in the state.

    The revenue, however, is not extensive enough to comprehensively address all school capital needs in the state. As a result, it makes sense to address the backlog of most egregious health and safety problems of current facilities. So an updated November 2007 version of the following recommendations would have that focus in mind.

    The recommendations were:

    –The state should contract with a professional facilities assessment company to undertake a statewide needs assessment to determine the condition of all the state’s school buildings.

    –Through a collaborative process, the state should develop minimum statewide standards for health and safety, as well as building condition, capacity, educational suitability and technological readiness of school facilities. These standards are only relevant as a determinant of state funding.

    –Oversight and administration of the state’s school capital construction program should be invested in a distinct board created for this purpose.

    –This state school capital construction oversight board should have sufficient staff to oversee the many areas of the capital funding program. The staff should provide technical assistance to districts in a variety of areas, including:

      –Evaluating district facility needs.
      –Developing district maintenance plans.
      –Interpreting statewide standards.
      –Accessing the capital construction grants.
      –Programming, planning and managing capital construction projects.

    –The state should provide school capital funding adequate to address the serious needs backlog as well as sustainable aid to districts going forward.

    –The program to address the backlog of school capital needs should distribute state capital revenue to projects identified in the statewide needs assessment in priority order.

    –The state should provide funding to assist districts in meeting their capital needs in the future. This funding program should be based on district capital capacity and current tax effort.

    –In order to address the very different types of school district capital needs going forward, the state should establish different programs for: repairs and renovations, for existing schools, new school construction, technology and emergencies.

    –Wherever possible, projects funded through the state school capital construction program should be financed by a combination of state and local revenue.

    –The ratio of state and local funding for capital projects should be determined by a formula based on districts’ relative wealth (as measured by district per pupil assessed value or district average personal income) relative to the statewide average and local district non-optional property tax effort. The total local district match should be capped at the total bonding capacity of the district.

    –The state should allow districts to request that their local match requirement be waived based on factors not represented in the state and local funding mix formula, including: a local district bonding effort, the number of at-risk students served, the number of special education students served and total district capital needs.

    Colorado Confidential: Can you give a little more insight about how funds from the Public Land Trust fund are generated and where these monies have been spent in the past? Weren’t these funds used by schools to help build or fix buildings anyway, and if so, how does funneling these funds through the proposed state program first help schools long term?

    Matt Samelson: Upon becoming a state in 1876, the federal government granted Colorado 4.75 million acres of land to be used for public schools. The Colorado Constitution specifically states: “that the state school lands are an endowment of land assets held in a perpetual, inter-generational public trust for the support of public schools.” Currently, the State Board of Land Commissioners manages about 2.8 million of surface acres and about 4.0 million mineral acres.

    Approximately 96 percent of the land managed by the State Board of Land Commissioners is for the Public School Trust Fund. These school trust lands generate cash revenues for the public school system (K-12), and there are multiple streams of revenue dedicated to the Trust. The revenues earned include cash funds from commercial rentals, agricultural rentals, mineral royalties, auctions of mineral leases (“bonuses”) and, to a small degree, land sales. In June 2007, the Fund had a balance of roughly $495 million.

    The school facility program proposal would utilize some portion of these revenue streams in order to help fund school projects in districts that have serious health and safety issues. The funding scenario proposed by the Treasurer, Speaker of the House and President of the Senate does not in any manner change or address the School Finance Act. Nor does the proposal require the General Assembly to designate funds for a school facility program.

    Currently, the Public School Trust Fund does not provide money to help build or fix schools. Much of the money entering the Trust stays there in order to grow the corpus of the fund. The School Finance Act does receive some money from the Trust, which the state uses to meet a small portion (roughly one-half of one percent) of its K-12 obligation. But, as I mentioned before, the proposal is being crafted in a manner that does not change or address the School Finance Act.

    Colorado Confidential: Thank you for your time, Matt.