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The Challenge of School Funding

The Hickenlooper administration caught everyone’s attention with a proposed 2011-2012 Colorado budget that slashes public education to the tune of $332 million or nearly $500 per pupil. This proposed reduction, along with the approximately 6.38 percent reductions to school districts in the current year, totals nearly 14 percent in the last two years.

These reductions in funding are particularly hard to deal with in Colorado’s rural school districts, many of which are losing enrollment and thus losing additional funding. Many rural school districts have already gone to the four-day week, made other elective program cuts, and used up their precious reserves to balance their budget. Rural school districts, because of their lack of economies of scale due to large geographical service areas, have higher per student transportation costs and have less flexibility in reducing their budgets. Some rural teachers, administrators and school board members are wondering if they can keep their doors open and what is next.

In recent months, various proposals and ideas have surfaced to fix the problem that has forced Colorado to cut an incredible $888 million from K-12 schools in the last four years and $5.8 billion from Colorado’s general fund budget.

Proposed fixes range from an effort by Senator Rollie Heath to incrementally increase state income and sales tax to 1999 levels to create new funds for K-12 and higher education to another by the Fiscal Policy Institute to implement a graduated income tax. Others believe that the proper approach is to continue to reduce the cost, size and complexity of government by establishing and funding only core functions and priorities.

Many people believe that Colorado is in this budget mess now due to the constitutional formulas that do not allow representative government to work. The combination of Gallagher, TABOR and Amendment 23 has created an untenable situation and many believe that Colorado voters must fix these mechanisms going forward and make it more difficult to amend the Colorado Constitution. It appears that the Colorado state legislature will soon pass Senate Concurrent Resolution 001, a referred measure to be voted on by the people of Colorado that would, if passed, make it more difficult to amend the state constitution. The measure requires that a certain percentage of signatures for constitutional ballot measures be gathered statewide, and that the threshold for future constitutional changes will be 60 percent rather than a simple majority.

Governor Hickenlooper added to the concerns of rural residents when he recently stated that Colorado should move toward consolidating school districts to end up with no more than 60 districts. Currently, there are 178 school districts. There are several reputable studies that conclude that there are not any substantial savings by consolidating rural districts. The large number of students and costs for K-12 education are along the front range of Colorado where the population centers are located. Many believe that school districts (especially rural districts) need to share services, i.e., superintendents, CFOs, business managers, transportation directors, technology systems, distance learning, etc., rather than consolidating districts. This approach would allow local rural communities to keep their school buildings open and thus save and protect jobs in the community and at the same time be more efficient.

All of us who care about local, county, and state services –  K-12 education, higher education, roads, social services, law enforcement, corrections –.need to get engaged in these discussions and help determine the future of our great state of Colorado. We must stand up for rural Colorado.

The quality of the education that a student receives must not be determined by their Colorado zip code.