Delta County Joint School District #50 hosted its second annual legislative visit last week. State Representatives Yeulin Willett, a 1976 Delta High School graduate, and Dan Thurlow attended the event along with the three county commissioners, Delta's mayor and city manager, county administrator Robbie LeValley and Trish Thibido, executive director of Delta County Economic Development.
School superintendent Caryn Gibson shared the district's challenges and successes. A slide presentation illustrated steadily declining enrollment, from 5,034 in 2012-13 to 4,764 this year (unofficial count). Declining property values have led to lower assessed valuations, which translate to increased reliance on state funding for district operations.
Ed Bowditch, school district lobbyist, said per-pupil funding of $7,187 places Delta County 154th out of 178 school districts in Colorado. Bowditch noted revenue estimates indicate a slight slowing of the state's economy and with the expansion of Medicaid, there's little wiggle room in the state budget.
The funding formula is very complicated, Rep. Thurlow said, and in many ways the budget process is "irrational," but any attempt to restructure the funding formula could backfire. It's a question of "Be careful for what you ask for," he said, because there are far more legislators representing the Front Range than the rural areas around the state.
On another topic, Rep. Thurlow asked about the amount of time spent on state assessments. Assistant school superintendent Kurt Clay said students in Delta County spend about 12 hours per year taking state assessments, which is less than 0.1 percent of the time they spend in class.
A bigger concern, he said, is potential consideration by the Colorado Department of Education to replace the current set of PARCC assessments.
"We've had this test two years ... this year will be our third year," Clay noted. "To be quite frank, we don't care what the standardized test is but we need it to start staying the same. There's no accurate information to come from the tests if we switch tests every year."
Clay and school board president Tammy Smith stressed standardized testing is an important tool in evaluating the effectiveness of instruction.
"That's good information for us," Smith said. "We want to know our kids are moving along, we want to make sure all our kids are successful. If we don't have consistent marks, if we can't see what each school is doing, that makes it hard for us to make sure our students are where they should be."
"The reality is we just need consistency," Clay said. "As long as we know the mark, we can get our kids to that point."
PARCC is one of two national testing cooperatives. Chalkbeat Colorado reports that PARCC began with more than 20 members and is now down to six.
State Board of Education members are expected to take up the issue later this fall.
At virtually every gathering in Delta County, the discussion inevitably turns to economic development. Because the school district operates the Delta-Montrose Technical College, job training was part of that discussion. County commissioner Bruce Hovde said he believes DMTC is a "crown jewel" that could be expanded to provide training in plumbing, electrical and other trades. Rep. Willett agreed the technical college is underutilized. He said it's time to rethink the traditional four-year college degree.
"The technical college is a gem here in Delta County and we are looking at growing our programs," Gibson said. She and DMTC director John Jones spoke about DMTC classes being offered in Gunnison and Montrose, in addition to those available on the campus south of Delta.
The legislative visit took place at Delta Middle School and included a tour of the sprawling campus. DMS principal Jennifer Ervin said the school has 496 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Legislators visited the school's sixth grade wing, which tops the list of building priorities for the school district. Delta County applied for a BEST grant to fund new classrooms and a new cafeteria, but has been placed on "standby." It's possible 50J could move up on that list if school districts approved for grants are not able to gain voter approval for matching funds in November.