With deep cuts looming some Colorado school districts look to Walmart model

The surplus of  $172.6 million transferred to the education fund in the governor’s 2010-2011 FY budget isn’t expected to do much to save school districts from having to make deep cuts that would see teachers and staff lose jobs.

School officials from across the state testified before the Senate Education Committee Thursday, pleading their case for lighter cuts to K-12 education as $332 million in cuts, scheduled in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget, loom on the horizon. The officials provided a tale of systems cut to the bone with only bone left to remove.

They said if Hickenlooper’s proposal was to go through, programs such as international baccalaureate, advanced placement, sports, music and many teachers would disappear from the school system, leaving a generation of children undereducated and a future economy robbed of their still hidden talents.

“I do not believe that the cuts before you for K12 are in concert with the values you have already legislated,” Cherry Creek Superintendent Mary Chesley, said. She said that success in teaching 50,000 students does not come about by teaching the same thing 50,000 times, but from teaching 50,000 different ways.

Without a change in what is currently proposed there is a possibility of not that 50ish loss of staff last year [of Cherry Creek School District employees], but probably the reality of a 300ish loss of positions for next school year,” she continued.  Chelsey said that the district had saved a reserve fund that has so far helped to dampen the effects of funding losses, however, those funds are near their end and further cuts would cause a compounding visibility of budgetary woes to one of the top tier school districts in the state.

Other programs have not been so fortunate and have made serious cuts for a number of years.     

District 11 in Colorado Springs, which has been suffering for over four years, likened schools to Walmart.  District reps said they had tried to use a business model to streamline the education system. In doing so they had closed schools and shut down products as cuts continued to diminish their capacity to serve their customers.

District 11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson said that the district’s job is to serve the customer and in this case that is the students and their parents. He said that, as a result, teachers and other members of the district would likely see pay decreases and furlough days.   

“We saw the way to save money is to work on your facility costs,” Gustafson said. “You don’t see Walmart keeping  stores that aren’t used open. They close those stores. So we are looking at our school buildings. District 11 actually closed nine different schools.”

Rural districts where per pupil funding will see a considerable dive said they were struggling to keep schools open and teachers in place. Many had already closed school buildings and combined schools under the funding crunch. In one case, a representative of a rural school district said decreasing student numbers were causing families to leave the area all together. 

Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, who sits on the Education Committee, asked a number of those testifying whether they would be amenable to allowing school districts to “swap” PERA fund contributions in the same manner that many public employees are already doing. Most said they worried what the effect to PERA would be in the long term as a result of changing the formula of employer/employee contributions.

In addition, King used the event as a sounding board for a potential state-matched mill levy increase sponsored by local governments that would help to decrease the gap between local and general fund funding of K-12 education.  Gustafson said the complex array of constitutional provisions that lower the local share of education dollars and increase the share the state pays out, often referred to as Colorado’s Gordian knot, was a problem they were greatly interested in solving and a discussion worth having.

It was a position almost all shared in the room.   

Educational mandates were also discussed, as Greeley Mayor Tom Norton said many of those policies were burdening school districts, and he asked for their reduction.  

Former state Sen. Norma Anderson agreed and said the often controversial CSAPs, which she helped to create, need to be eliminated to save money. “Get rid of them,” Anderson said. “I carried the bill, but get rid of them.”

After the hearing, Committee Chair Rep. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said the hearing had brought a face to the challenges faced by K12 education.

“We have reached a place where we can no longer protect the classroom from cuts, and that is why we chose to hold this hearing,” Bacon said. “The economic future of Colorado depends on how well we educate the next generation. Businesses considering relocating to Colorado want to know their investment in our state will be met by our investment in their future workers. Colorado employers considering expansion want to know Colorado can attract the best talent. Those workers will consider the quality of Colorado’s schools before deciding to come to our state. Therefore, we must continue to fight for our kids and our schools.”

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