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Advocacy groups to Colorado elected officials: Step up and fund our schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater raises her hand for assistance while students work on their iPads.

A coalition of education advocacy groups has fired the first shot in what’s shaping up to be a brutal battle at the statehouse next year over school funding.

Led by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit group that advocates for more resources for schools, the coalition is calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper, the legislature and the State Board of Education to create a three-year plan “restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.”

“We’re calling on everyone to step it up,” said Lisa Weil, Great Education Colorado’s executive director. “It’s just not sustainable to think our current trajectory of school funding will produce graduates ready for the workforce to support the economy we all want and expect.”

Recent budget forecasts have painted a gloomy outlook for the state’s finances, which could mean cuts for schools across the state.

The governor’s office will submit its proposed budget to lawmakers Nov. 1, giving school districts their first look at what to expect for the 2017-18 school year.

If the governor’s budget calls for across-the-board cuts, it would be the first time since 2012 that state spending for schools has not increased. Last year was the first year that the state’s average funding per student exceeded pre-Great Recession levels. But advocates and school leaders continue to argue funding should be much higher — by about a billion dollars.

School funding has always been a touchy subject in Colorado, a low-tax state in which lawmakers have little say over funding priorities and tax levels. Several constitutional amendments do that for them.

“This issue is much bigger than just the legislature and the governor,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “If we could actually vote on something in the legislature that would take care of this, I think we’d have that opportunity. But we’re very limited.”

Weil said she hopes lawmakers and the governor, who is entering his last two years in office, get creative. But her organization is stopping short of specific recommendations — for now.

“What we know,” she said, “is that it’s going to require every legislator on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to make this their own personal mission to figure out how to do right by the students in our schools today.”

Read the coalition’s letter here:

October 27, 2016

An Open Letter to State Leaders:

As representatives of statewide and community organizations, we know what our children and communities require to thrive:

  • Vibrant public schools with qualified, well-prepared and culturally competent teachers for every student regardless of where they live or how they learn;
  • Learning opportunities that meet the needs and curiosity of each and every child;
  • Individual attention, support and mental health services that ensure that no child’s future is defined by deprivations, challenges, or trauma.

We also know that every year these student needs go unfulfilled is a year that our students cannot replace or redo. The urgency of now could not be greater.

We appreciate that the coming legislative year poses significant challenges for you.  Despite having one of the strongest economies in the nation, the Colorado constitution requires that you hold back funds from the fundamental services that help our communities thrive – vibrant public schools, public health and safety, affordable college, safe roads – in order to fund small, individual taxpayer rebates.

Now is the time for us to consider the building blocks necessary to ensure prosperity in the future.  Colorado’s rapid economic and population growth requires investment in the Coloradans whom we hope will lead, serve and work in our communities in the decades to come.

Education is the bedrock of our strength as a state. It is in that context that the undersigned organizations call on you to apply the following minimum standards to your consideration of budget and education policy this year. We ask that you:

  1. Place Colorado on a three-year path to restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.
  2. Reject policies that exacerbate or increase the already existing inequities between districts. This includes rejecting unfunded mandates.
  3. Reject policies that will pit children against each other.  Address the inequities in learning opportunities to Colorado’s children through significant additional resources.
  4. Ensure that the all-too-scarce public dollars allocated to K-12 education are only used for public schools.

We do not accept – and hope that you will not accept – the notion that adequate and equitable support for school funding is something that is simply beyond your authority or Colorado’s ability.  Education serves as the foundation of individual opportunity, community vitality and economic prosperity. We ask for the children of Colorado and for the future of our great state that our elected leaders be bold, visionary and united in addressing this funding crisis.

Thank you for keeping the future of Colorado in your minds as you propose and consider the state budget.

Sincerely,

American Federation of Teachers-Colorado
The Arc of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties
Colorado Council of Churches
Colorado Education Association
Coloradans for Educational Excellence
Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization
Colorado Parent Teacher Association
Colorado School Finance Project
Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition
Great Education Colorado
NAACP CO MT WY State-Area Conference
Padres Unidos
Project VOYCE
Support Jeffco Kids
Urban League of Metropolitan Denver

A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”

Building Plans

Bond defeat in Jefferson County puts Alameda school renovations on hold — again

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Students move through the crowded cafeteria at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School in Lakewood.

Of all the Jefferson County schools pinning their hopes on the district’s bond and tax measures on the November ballot, few had as much to gain — or lose — as Alameda International.

The cafeteria is so cramped, the school spreads lunch over four periods and some students stand or sit in the hallways to eat. The gym locker rooms don’t have enough lockers. The school is lacking appropriate space to add career classes and teachers are forced to share classrooms.

When voters turned down the $535 million bond request this year for Jeffco Public Schools, Alameda International lost out on getting fixes to those problems as part of a $20 million renovation at the school that has been on hold since at least 2008. The district described the work that the bond would have covered as fulfilling a “past promise.”

Now the principal, Susie Van Scoyk, worries that some of the momentum of the school’s improvements from the last seven years will slow and that retaining teachers at the high-needs school will become more difficult.

The defeat stings more because the school is changing. Last year Alameda International expanded from being a stand-alone high school to including middle school grades.

“Our building isn’t built for younger students,” Van Scoyk said. “Middle school students have different developmental and social needs.”

Jeffco is working on updating plans following the failure of the district’s two tax requests — the bond and a smaller tax increase known as a mill levy override. Van Scoyk said she will continue to be a loud proponent for her school’s needs.

“I believe the students here deserve the same type of facility other students have,” Van Scoyk said. “But we will do the very best with what we do have.”

Alameda International, a school on Jeffco’s eastern boundary with Denver, currently has more than 1,200 students. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch — a measure of poverty — and about 22 percent are learning English as a second language. It’s a different population from the suburban district’s average school.

“This is really more of an urban school, with the needs of an urban school,” Van Scoyk said. “I can’t go to my PTA and say ‘Hey, we really need to or want to buy new science textbooks or we want to get laptops, or iPads.’ We just don’t have that capacity here.”

The school’s preliminary state ratings this year show Alameda’s high school grades moved up to the performance category for the first time in more than five years. In part, the rating is likely influenced by the school’s rising graduation rate. In 2015, the state recorded Alameda’s graduation rate at more than 92 percent, up from about 71 percent in 2010.

“The students and staff really have been remarkable,” Van Scoyk said.

But lately she says she’s had countless conversations with younger teachers who say they can’t afford to stay in Jeffco if they can make more in neighboring districts. The district’s mill levy override — a second property tax request that voters turned down — would have maintained and possibly increased teacher salaries.

“I want to keep the really good teachers we have here,” Van Scoyk said. “We know what makes a difference for a child is a high-quality teacher.”

Jeffco’s school board members voiced the same sentiment at a recent board meeting discussing with staff what should be prioritized as the district figures out what cuts might be necessary following the defeat of the tax requests. Many said that teacher retention should be prioritized with what money the district has.

Looking back, forward

Alameda’s school building on South Wadsworth Boulevard has been expanded many times since it was built in 1961 to try to accommodate more students, but some original shared spaces like the lunchroom and the gym locker rooms haven’t kept up.

The school has two gyms, but the locker rooms don’t have enough lockers for students. Teachers require students to change for physical education classes, but assistant principal Williams said they can’t penalize students since many don’t have a place to store a change of clothes.

Outside the building, school leaders would like more open space for the middle school student’s activities. Right now, most middle school students play on an open space behind the tennis courts, but between the building’s additions, the bleachers and the tennis courts, the area isn’t easily visible to the staff watching the students, so it takes more adults to be outside watching kids around each corner.

Inside, staff and administrators closely monitor their radios because the school’s announcement system is old and doesn’t work in the cafeteria. If something else is being broadcast through the speakers in the school’s auditorium, the announcements won’t be heard in there either. That presents a safety issue if something has to be communicated in an emergency, such as an evacuation.

Some of those issues were expected to be fixed as part of the phase two renovations that would have been paid for by the district’s bond. The work was put on hold when voters in 2008 rejected the school district’s tax measures that year, too.

In 2012, voters did approve a $99 million bond request, but the smaller amount covered more immediate deferred maintenance across the district, not big renovation projects.

Alameda’s turnaround efforts started seven years ago centered on the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Two years ago school leaders started expanding on the program by offering the IB program’s career classes too.

It started with health career classes. Students in the career pathway can graduate with a certificate in bilingual medical terminology giving them the chance to work in medical offices as translators who are proficient in language and the context.

Students also asked for an arts career option and one for STEM careers, representing those in science, technology, engineering and math. The arts classes just started this year. The STEM classes are now on hold. School leaders said they were hoping to use bond money to build or retrofit classrooms for engineering courses.

“To have a STEM pathway, we don’t have the type of facility and equipment that some of our neighboring schools have,” Van Scoyk said.

If the bond had passed this year, the renovation of the building also would have likely addressed the building’s layout that is causing stress on the new seventh through 12th grade model.

School leaders are juggling schedules and class locations to keep younger students away from older students. Although the building can house more students, keeping kids in separate parts of the school by grade level means space is short in some places where it can be enough in others. Williams, in charge of the master schedule, has three white boards in his office that help him track what teachers are in what classroom at what time.

It’s not ideal, but school leaders say they are managing for now.

“Kids keep coming everyday,” Van Scoyk said. “They have to be our focus.”