Wants vs. needs

Lawmakers add $35 million to Colorado budget for school officers, security upgrades

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville speaks in support of more money for school security measures during the 2018-19 budget debate. State Rep. Alec Garnett, right, watches. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers agreed late Wednesday to spend $35 million next year on police officers in schools and security upgrades to school buildings.

It was the most significant change to the state’s $28.9 billion budget in hours of debate Wednesday, and it represents a major allocation to schools in a year when lawmakers touted a $150 million increase in K-12 spending as historic.

The revision came after thousands of students descended on the Colorado Capitol to protest gun violence twice in two weeks, as part of a national movement inspired by a Florida school shooting that killed 17. Many of those students were calling for gun control measures, but the political dynamics in the Capitol make new gun laws unlikely. This year, though, legislators have money to spend.

The 2018-19 budget recommended by the Joint Budget Committee already included $7 million for school security improvements. Republicans responded with a half dozen proposed budget amendments to increase funding for school safety measures, several of them by as much as $50 million.

Lawmakers ultimately settled on a $35 million compromise after dramatic brinkmanship that forced Democrats to vote down the $50 million request rather than Republicans withdrawing it voluntarily. The intent of the amendment is to use the money to hire and train more school resource officers and pay for security cameras, controlled access, and other security upgrades to campuses. Separate legislation will be necessary to outline the allowed uses of the money and the process for distributing it – something that could generate yet more debate.

State Rep. James Wilson, the Salida Republican who introduced the amendment for $35 million, said no amount of money was worth the life of a child.

“School site safety is more important than roads and bridges, and more important than, wait for it, full-day kindergarten,” said Wilson, a former teacher and superintendent who regularly calls for the state to fully fund kindergarten. “If we transport them on good roads and pay for their education but we cannot keep them safe, we have failed.”

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the assistant majority leader, worked for hours to get the votes for the $35 million. At one point, exasperated, he took to the floor to accuse Republicans of turning school security into a “wedge issue.”

“There was a fist bump. There was an agreement,” he said. “We got all the way up to 35, and then I was told that wasn’t enough, and that just tells me we never really wanted to do anything today.”

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican who survived the Columbine massacre as a teenager, took the podium and acknowledged an informal agreement. But he said it did not mean he had agreed to pressure his members to change their position.

“This is not an easy issue for me,” Neville said, his voice catching with emotion as a hush fell over the chamber. “I’ve had to live with this for 19 years. I want to solve this problem. You’ve all heard my solutions on how to solve this problem, and they’ve been rejected for four years. So here I am discussing a different, less political solution.”

Neville sponsors legislation every year that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their handguns on school campuses. As strongly as many activists believe in gun control, Neville believes just as strongly that more armed adults would make schools safer.

The compromise left some Democrats deeply unhappy. State Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, said Hispanic and African-American lawmakers don’t feel included in the discussions, and their communities do not necessarily want more police in schools.

“That affects students of color first. … Ultimately, we’re the ones who get shot first,” Salazar said. “Without having these discussions with us, this is not a solution.”

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat, said students don’t want to go to schools that feel like prisons. The proposal doesn’t provide what students really need, he said.

“I’m not seeing the additional counselors that we need in our schools to point out a troubled kid or the training for our teachers to know when a child is having trouble, not just at school with a bully but at home with abuse,” he said.

And state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said lawmakers should not mischaracterize the message of marching students or the majority of survivors.

“What they have mentioned is the efforts their schools have put in place to keep them safe, it is not enough,” she said. “What they are asking for is a conversation on this floor about common sense gun safety measures. I want to be clear about the message of the young people.”

After the vote, Herod linked more officers in schools with the school-to-prison pipeline.

Colorado banned high-capacity magazines and required universal background checks after the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, but gun control has been at an impasse in the legislature since Republicans took control of the state Senate. In contrast, lawmakers have an extra $1.3 billion to work with in the state budget, making monetary solutions more politically feasible.

State Rep. Susan Beckman, a Littleton Republican, said the state improved security at public buildings, and students deserve the same protection.

“This is the time to make schools safe,” she said. “We have done this for state employees. We have spent millions and millions of dollars upgrading our government buildings, yet our schools for years have been underfunded.”

The budget needs one more vote in the House before it goes to the Senate, where legislators will have their own amendments that could change the final form of the budget.

This story has been updated to clarify the next steps in the process.


Sponsor pulls bill that would change how Colorado distributes money to schools

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

There won’t be a change to Colorado’s school funding formula this year, at least not at the Capitol.

State Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, killed his own bill Wednesday by asking that it be postponed indefinitely. The House Education Committee complied, though some Democrats were reluctant.

Young said he didn’t think the bill, which had already been postponed twice, could garner bipartisan support in a form that the superintendents who conceived of the proposal could accept, but he said lawmakers need to come back to the issue.

“There is a sense of urgency that is greater right now and will continue to escalate if we don’t show that we are doing something,” he said of the eve of massive teacher rallies calling for more school funding.

The proposal called for a “student-centered” distribution model to replace the state’s school finance formula created in 1994. At its most basic, this approach gives districts and schools more money for students who have more needs, whether that’s learning English or being gifted and talented or having a disability. A working group of Colorado superintendents came up with the new formula, and eventually 171 of the state’s 178 district leaders signed onto it.

The new formula would have gone into effect only if voters passed a $1.6 billion tax increase. Without the additional money, the change would have cost some districts millions.

Superintendents felt so strongly about this formula that they held a rally to unveil it.

After the committee vote, Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper, who led the effort to change the formula, said his group would keep working on the idea until they could find bipartisan support.

I think I speak for all of my colleagues that we understood the political realities going in,” Cooper said, describing himself as “disappointed but not discouraged.”

“It’s very seldom is a bill’s first attempt its last attempt.”

However, an interim school finance committee that expects to propose legislation for the 2019 session will not be taking up the superintendents’ proposal.

Republicans and Democrats both raised concerns about the bill. While proponents of the formula change argued it’s much more equitable, Republicans said it seemed to them that the tax increase was the real change, with its potential for a big cash infusion to schools. Democrats wondered about the wisdom of tackling the distribution formula in isolation from other problems related to how Colorado funds its schools.

The effort to put that tax increase on the ballot continues, and the initiative itself would compel changes to the funding formula if it passes.

“Great Schools, Thriving Communities is moving forward full speed ahead,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group. “Our ballot measure has a more equitable distribution embedded in it, and it also shows the voter intent that our school finance system be very equitable and student-focused. The legislature will have another chance to pick up this issue.”

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, but Weil said she believes this time will be different.

“There has been cut after cut, year after year, a few more kids in each classroom, pay freezes, shave away some extracurricular activities, or more fees appear,” she said. “People are getting it. Our current school funding levels are not the path forward we want for Colorado.”

Day without a Teacher

These Colorado school districts are canceling classes for teacher protests

Empty Chairs And Desks In Classroom (Getty Images)

Thousands of Colorado teachers are expected to descend on the state Capitol Thursday and Friday to call on lawmakers to make a long-term commitment to increasing K-12 education funding.

These Colorado districts have announced they’re canceling classes because they won’t have enough teachers and other staff on hand to safely have students in their buildings. They include the state’s 10 largest districts, serving more than 500,000 students. Denver Public Schools, which had planned for an early dismissal on Friday, announced late Monday that classes would be canceled for the entire day.

Some charter schools, including DSST and STRIVE Prep, are joining the teacher demonstrations, and others are not. Parents whose children attend charter schools in these districts should check with the school.

Unless otherwise noted, classes are canceled for the entire day on Friday, April 27.

    • Denver Public Schools, serving 92,600 students
    • Jeffco Public Schools, serving 86,100 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Douglas County School District, serving 67,500 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Cherry Creek School District, serving 55,600 students
    • Aurora Public Schools, serving 40,900 students
    • Adams 12 Five Star Schools, serving 38,900 students
    • St. Vrain Valley School District, serving 32,400 students
    • Boulder Valley School District, serving 31,300 students
    • Poudre School District, serving 30,000 students
    • Colorado Springs School District 11, serving 27,400 students
    • Academy District 20, serving 25,800 students
    • Falcon 49, serving 21,400 students
    • Brighton 27J, serving 17,800 students
    • Thompson School District, serving 16,200 students
    • Littleton Public Schools, serving 15,600 students
    • Adams County School District 14, serving 7,400 students
    • Lewis-Palmer School District 38, serving 6,700 students
    • Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, serving 5,200 students
    • Johnstown-Milliken Re-5J, serving 3,900 students
    • Summit School District, serving 3,600 students
    • Cañon City School District, serving 3,500 students
    • Weld County School District Re-8, serving 2,400 students
    • Valley Re-1 School District in Sterling, serving 2,300 students
    • Manitou Springs School District, serving 1,400 students
    • Sheridan School District, serving 1,400 students
    • Lake County School District, serving 1,000 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Clear Creek Re-1, serving 800 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)

Some districts already don’t have classes Thursday or Friday, either for professional development or spring break. Those include Westminster Public Schools, Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, Eagle County Schools, Widefield School District, and Harrison School District.

Teachers in Sterling are planning a regional rally at the Logan County Courthouse instead of traveling to Denver.

Teachers who miss work to engage in political activity generally have to take a personal day to do so.

This list will be updated as we hear from more districts.

The list has been corrected to reflect that Douglas County will not hold classes on Thursday.