Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert stood with 70 of his counterparts inside the jam-packed rotunda in the state Capitol on Jan. 11, urging legislators to untangle what Ewert calls the “Gordian knot” that is school finance in Colorado.
“Across Colorado, we teach our students to be 21st-century citizens and employ the skills of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication,” Ewert said after the press conference. “In the most simple terms, superintendents and advocates of public education are asking the incredibly smart people of Colorado to come together, use these skills and find solutions to Colorado's fiscal crisis.”
Bruce Messinger of the Boulder Valley School District, the state's 2016 Superintendent of the Year and co-chair of the Colorado Association of School Executives, notes that Colorado spends about $2,000 less a year per student than the national average.
“What we're asking is that the hole doesn't get any deeper,” said Messinger. “They're a whole child, but we fund them as part of a child in this state.”
Ewert emphasizes restoring what's known as the “negative factor,” which has cost his district alone $87.5 million in funding since it was implemented in 2009 in the midst of the “Great Recession.”
“It made sense in a bad economy when everyone was expected to tighten their belts, but now things are different,” said Shannon Bird, a Westminster city councilmember with two children in the Adams 12 Five Star School District.
Colorado's Amendment 23 mandates that the state pay a base amount per child to school districts, which must rise in accordance to the rate of inflation. It applies a formula based on variables such as size, local cost of living and the number of at-risk kids, in an effort to more equitably distribute the funds. But in 2009, the Legislature decided the amount each district gets based on those factors does not have to increase, just the base.
“We hold firmly to the belief that voters' intent in passing Amendment 23 was for schools to realize year-over-year funding increases of at least inflation plus student growth,” reads a letter to state legislators signed by 167 of the state's 178 superintendents.
Among the superintendents to sign the letter were those from the Jefferson County, Cherry Creek, Englewood and Adams 12 Five Star districts.
“All 178 of us could stand up here and tell you stories about what their children are not getting,” said Kirk Banghart, superintendent of the Moffat 2 School District. “Schools are not just the educational and social hub for students, they are the social and emotional hearts of the communities.”
Ewert hopes the Legislature will be able to agree on some strategies to fix the overall picture this time around.
“I'm certain there are multiple pathways to creative solutions that will not only solve the public school financial issue, but also the looming crisis facing higher education, transportation and health and human services throughout Colorado,” he said.
What educators want
During the 2016 legislative session, Colorado superintendents are specifically advocating for the General Assembly to do the following, according to a letter to state legislators:
1. Uphold the intent of the General Assembly, detailed in SB 15-267, and not reduce state appropriations for the 2015-2016 School Finance Act as a result of increases in statewide assessed property values and consideration of other factors including economic forecasts and state-wide enrollment changes.
2. Support a supplemental appropriation for 2015-2016 if necessary to ensure per-pupil funding is not reduced as a result of enrollment growth or the number of at-risk pupils enrolled.
3. Avoid increasing the negative factor in fiscal year 2016-17.
4. Increase total program funding in fiscal year 2016-17 by the rate of inflation and additional amounts necessary to account for increases in pupil enrollment and the number of at-risk students enrolled.
5. Reclassify the Hospital Provider Fee to an enterprise fund during the 2016 legislative session as a short-term measure to provide additional funding for Colorado's schools.