Archuleta School District Superintendent Linda Reed recently joined an overwhelming majority of other school district superintendents from throughout the state in crafting and sending a letter to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and state legislators.
“We are asking our elected officials to begin to return the funding that has been withheld from school districts over the last three years of economic tough times,” Reed explained recently in an e-mail to SUN staff. “However, statewide, the economy is improving and the state education fund is quite flush.”
The letter to the governor, dated Feb. 10, begins by stating, “We represent Colorado school districts serving more than 99 percent of the public school students in our state and 168 of 178 school districts. As such, we also represent hundreds of thousands of families, as well as communities, businesses and a broad range of state and local economic interests.”
The letter then went on to explain in detail the history and the consequences of funding cuts to the state’s educational system before proposing the legislature restore $275 million worth of recurring funds to public schools.
“As superintendents,” the letter concludes, “we have a moral and ethical duty to advocate for the children we serve and the overall economic well being of our communities … In closing, we believe it is time to begin restoring K-12 funding to pre-recession levels.”
“The other thing we are asking is that the money be returned, without strings attached,” Reed continued in her e-mail to The SUN, “since the reductions that we made in districts were based on local priorities. We asked that the returned funds not be earmarked for things the legislators think are important but may be meaningless in local communities.”
The Colorado Association of School Boards recently released a statement explaining the history of the negative factor.
Colorado’s school finance act, passed in 1994, was designed to ensure every student in Colorado has the same educational opportunity regardless of where he or she lived. The law set up a base per-pupil funding amount that represented what it takes to educate an average student in an average district. The base amount was then adjusted by “factors,” which account for unique local circumstances such as size, at-risk students in the district, cost of living and personnel costs.
The whole point of the factors was to equalize funding across districts by addressing the increased per-pupil costs for a district to educate its students when, for example, a high percentage of pupils are from at-risk populations or when the necessary costs of running a school and hiring staff are divided among a small student population in an isolated rural district.
However, during the 1990s, Colorado’s education spending did not keep pace with growth and the inflation rate, and each year per-pupil funding for education in Colorado fell steadily further and further behind the national average.
Colorado’s voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000. It required K-12 funding be increased each year by the inflation rate plus 1 percent until 2011, and thereafter by inflation. The point was to provide stable and predictable funding increases for Colorado school districts and to bring the total per-pupil funding amount in Colorado back to 1989 levels when adjusted for inflation.
Unfortunately, beginning in the 2009-10 school year, in response to the economic downturn and resulting budget crisis, the legislature declared that Amendment 23 only required the legislature to increase the base funding each year. Under this new interpretation, funding for the factors could be cut by the legislature.
The legislature proceeded to add a new “negative factor” to the school finance funding formula as a mechanism to enact across-the-board cuts to school finance funding each year. The negative factor has forced all Colorado school districts to make cuts to important educational programs.
In addition, the negative factor has destroyed the equalizing mechanism in the school finance funding formula by disproportionately impacting districts and communities that rely most heavily on the factors to attain equity with other districts.
The legislature also has continued to pass significant new mandates that impose additional unfunded and costly obligations on school districts already struggling to serve students with dramatically reduced funding.
The total funding lost to school districts by application of the negative factor over the last five years is $3 billion. Until the negative factor is eliminated, every new program, initiative or reporting requirement is an unfunded mandate on local school districts.
On March 3, Reed sent a letter out asking local community members to contact their representatives and ask that funding for education be restored.
“To help put this funding crisis in perspective,” Reed’s letter explained, “the impact of the negative factor to Archuleta School District 50 Jt. has decreased our funding by $5,087,383 over the last three years. What does that translate to in Pagosa Springs, Colorado? In terms of instructional staff who provided direct services to our students, we have eliminated the following: five math specialists and three reading support specialists at the elementary school; two reading teachers and a physical education teacher at the middle school; one each, English, social studies and math teachers at the high school. We have also merged the intermediate and junior high schools, thus eliminating a principal, counselor and secretary. At the district level, we have eliminated a grants manager, a half time gifted and talented coordinator, combined the maintenance and transportation director positions and transferred athletic director responsibilities to the assistant principals at the middle and high schools. We have deferred maintenance and one-time expenses such as the replacement of thirty-year-old buses. We have eliminated and combined bus routes. We have also dipped into our reserves to an uncomfortable level.”
At its Tuesday night meeting, the ASD board of education passed a resolution urging the Colorado general assembly to restore K-12 funding lost to the negative factor.
The resolution asserted, “The purpose of Amendment 23, passed by the voters of Colorado in 2000, was to help Colorado’s funding for public schools catch up to the national average. In contravention of this expressed will of the people, the negative factor leaves Colorado 42nd, more than $2,500 below the national average.”
In addition, the resolution complains, “Even as they continue to reduce funding, the legislature has passed multiple significant reform efforts, including but not limited to the Preschool to Postsecondary Education Alignment Act (CAP4K)(Senate Bill 08-212), the Education Accountability Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 09-163), the Educator Effectiveness Law (Senate Bill 10-191) and the Colorado READ Act (House Bill 12-1238).”