Hard-pressed Cortez educators ask neighbors to embrace Amendment 66 tax proposal

CORTEZ, Colo. — It’s 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Nancy Shaw and Jeri Price, veteran teachers with six decades of classroom experience between them, are preparing to talk with a handful of parents and administrators about the impact Amendment 66 might have on their district. By the time they head home, they’ll have worked for 12 hours. It’s just another day at Kemper Elementary School, where annual total funding for each student is $6,328, which means it’s $4,506 below the national average.

The situation in Cortez is emblematic. Colorado currently ranks 46th in the nation for per-pupil funding, despite being one of the 10 richest states in the country. This November, voters will decide if they’re willing to raise taxes on themselves to invest nearly $1 billion into the state’s education system.

The ballot measure, Amendment 66, would transform income tax in the state. The current flat tax of 4.63 percent would bump up to 5 percent on all income below $75,000 and to 5.9 percent on everything above that. The amendment committee, Colorado Commits to Kids, estimates that the average household would pay $133 more in taxes each year if the measure were to pass.

For a district as underfunded as is the one that includes Cortez, which closely resembles many districts on the state’s western slope and eastern plains, “66” would be a boon.

Greg Lawler of the Colorado Education Association estimates that the majority of the families in Cortez could expect to pay closer to $60 more a year on their taxes and receive in return a nearly $4 million injection of cash for their schools.

“This is the poorest school district I’ve ever been a part of,” said rookie superintendent Alex Landau, who moved to Cortez 14 months ago after serving as principal at an award-winning public high school in Telluride — where students are funded at about $11,000 each. “I’ve literally never worked in a district where we talk this much about how to buy enough copy paper.”

In addition to cutting back on supplies, the district also attempted to save money a few years ago by dropping to a four-day week. The move saved them $300,000 on busses alone, but wasn’t great for overall student performance. Cortez has also held off on updating facilities and building new schools. Landau’s biggest win so far was getting a bond passed to build a high school, the district’s first new building in half century.

That bond money won’t pay to run the new high school, though, nor any of the district’s other eight schools.

Kemper Elementary has cut spending on all “special” programs. Students get 20 minutes a week each of art, music, PE and technology from non-teacher-certified instructors.The cuts to specials, as they say, also mean cuts to curriculum-planning time.

“Right now we have less than 35 minutes of contract time to plan each day,” said Shaw. “That’s why you’ll see the parking lot full of teacher’s cars before and after school, even on the weekend.”

“This is a gross analogy, but cutting a teacher’s planning time like that is akin to sending patients into an operating room without giving the operating staff any time to prepare,” said Landau. “All the stuff from the last operation is still there when they wheel in the next patient.”

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A recent TELL survey, which asses teaching conditions across the state, found that Cortez teachers had effectively donated 53 days of personal time last year. Meanwhile, they’ve also been on a salary freeze and classroom budgets, now $100 per year, often have them buying supplies out of pocket.

“I made less in June of 2013 than I did in June of 2007,” said Shaw. “It’s not just that we’re on a funding freeze, we’re actually moving backward.”

Price added that she recently spent $120 of her own money to buy a subscription to Scholastic Magazines for her third-graders.

Cortez kids aren’t just missing out on the magazines, field trips or the high-tech teaching tablets used in higher-performing schools. The district is diverse and many of the students face unique challenges. Seventy percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch, half are white, 35 percent are Native American, 15 percent are Latino, and 12 percent are learning English as a second language.

“When kids come to school and they’re in trauma, we need to deal with that before asking them to read better,” said Landau. “Our performance scores aren’t going up because we’ve eliminated all the support kids need… We need funds to pay for psychologists, nutritionists, social workers. Right now we’re putting that work directly onto our teachers.”

There are long-term costs to underfunding education, according to Lawler, who visited Cortez from Durango to advocate for Amendment 66.

“Here’s one way to think about it,” he said to the gathering of about a dozen community members circled up in Kemper’s gym. “Are you willing to pay $6,000 per kid now only to pay $40,000 per inmate later? The fact is, there are children who aren’t getting the support they need and who end up making bad choices.”

For Dan Porter, a principle at two of the district’s schools and the Mayor of Cortez, it’s not just the long-term costs of underfunded schools that have him pushing Amendment 66. There are long-term gains as well.

“We’re facing a brain drain,” he said. “The kids who can leave, leave. But we’re on the cusp of a big change. Companies are coming here for the quality of life. The next step is to get them to stay, to raise their kids here, and that means improving education. It’s an ‘If you build it, they will come’ type of situation.”

“We’re going to be much more dependent, in the future, on higher education to grow our economy,” agreed Lawler. “Part of the reason our economy struggles and will continue to struggle is because we’ve lost blue collar jobs and they aren’t coming back.”

The median household income in Cortez is just under $40,000. Price says the local taxes — or “mill levies” — passed by wealthier districts to make up for the state’s lack of funding just aren’t an option for the parents in her district.

As lawyers for students from the nearby San Luis Valley argued in the state’s recently concluded Lobato education-funding court case, Cortez needs state money to provide an education equivalent to the one public school students are receiving in places like Telluride or Aspen.

“People in this specific town would have to be crazy not to vote for 66,” said Landau. “Our per-pupil funding would go up to $7,359.”

That would still leave Cortez several thousand dollars behind many wealthier districts and the national average. In fact, at the statewide level, 66 would only add back the $1 billion that the state legislature has drawn from public education over the last four years. If Amendment 66 passes, Colorado will move from 46th in the nation for per pupil funding to 42nd.

“You don’t see me complaining,” said Landau, noting that, although 66 amounts to a drop in a bucket, it’s a drop that could have a serious ripple effect. “There’s a pretty straight line between funding and the ability to get to every student, to make sure they get the education they deserve … We’re poised to take that next leap in teaching and learning here. We’ll do it with or without funding. But it will be a lot easier with a little help.”

Andrea Witkowski has a son in second grade at Kemper. Although she makes less than $20,000 a year, she routinely pitches in whenever she can afford it — buying a few reams of the needed copy paper or donating time to plant the school’s community garden.

“In the old days, as soon as a community had the resources, they’d come together and build a school. Everyone pitched in, everyone did what they could,” said Witkowski. “Nothing has changed. We have to fund education. That is still our responsibility.”

[ Images: Top, Teacher Nancy Shaw shows off student work; bottom, Superintendent Alex Landau talks Amendment 66 with district residents. Photos by Tessa Cheek. ]


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