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Legislators address school funding

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Photo by Pat Sunderland Nellie Freeman and Amber Jenkins, Cedaredge High School student council members, get a civics lesson from Senator Kerry Donovan. During a legislative visit at CHS, she referred to a bill killed in committee, and the students had sp

At Cedaredge High School last week, superintendent Caryn Gibson had the opportunity to share the needs, challenges and celebrations of Delta County Joint School District with the state legislators who represent Delta County in Denver. At the end of the first-ever legislative school visit, Rep. Millie Hamner, Rep. Yeulin Willett and Senator Kerry Donovan all expressed support for Delta County schools. Also in attendance were Joyce Rankin, the newly appointed member of the Colorado Board of Education, Delta County Commissioner Bruce Hovde and Ed Bowditch, a lobbyist for the school district. School board members, Cedaredge administrators and four members of Cedaredge High School's student leadership team sat in on a presentation that highlighted the unique needs of Delta County Joint School District.

Superintendent Caryn Gibson explained the school district is one of the largest in the state with multiple sites. It covers 1,157 square miles and has 24 instructional sites, ranging from the Backpack Early Learning Academies to Delta-Montrose Technical College. The geographic and demographic challenges of the district result in funding inequities that were a focus of discussion with the legislators.

Lobbyist Ed Bowditch zeroed in on the numbers. Using per-pupil funding from the state, he ranked all 178 school districts in Colorado. Delta County came in at 159 out of 178 school districts, with per-pupil funding of $7,009. At the top is Pawnee School District, which is funded at $16,636 for each of its 79 students. Silverton receives $15,493 per student.

Almost all of the schools at the top of the funding list are very small, Bowditch noted. One school district in eastern Colorado actually split into two so it could get more money for each of the two smaller districts, he noted.

If Delta County was funded at the state average, the result would be $278 per student, which totals $1.4 million when multiplied by student enrollment.

Bowditch observed that Delta County does not benefit from any of the variables that affect state funding. It's not small enough for the size factor, not in a high cost area and while there may be a high percentage of at-risk students, it doesn't reach the level of 50 or 60 percent like Aurora or Denver.

"There's no extra money for Delta County from the School Finance Act," he said.

Bowditch also touched on general economic conditions in Delta County. Per capita income of $34,681 places Delta County 50th among the state's 64 counties. The most recent data is from 2013; when new statistics come out in November, Bowditch says he fears a slide due to the impact of mine layoffs.

"This is not a rich county. We can't depend on the voters to keep coming back and bailing out the school district," he told the legislators.

While per-pupil funding has increased steadily over the past five years, Gibson noted state funding has been offset by declining enrollment and declining valuation. The result is flat funding, while expenses continue to increase. School board president Pete Blair noted one of those expenses is PERA, the state retirement program. Employer (school district) contributions are mandated by the state legislature and now total almost 10 percent of the school district's total budget.

Other challenges as noted by Gibson included an aging transportation fleet, the need for more electives for high school students, and the need for more teachers who are qualified for AP and concurrent enrollment courses. Professional development is a priority for the school district, but often requires travel to the Front Range, and technology is an ongoing challenge.

The state legislators were sympathetic, but said the state faces similar funding issues. "We've got another challenge too," said Rep. Millie Hamner. According to one state forecast, there won't be enough money to fund Amendment 23 (for schools), partly because the state has hit its TABOR cap and will be issuing taxpayer refunds.

"We're committed to figuring this out, but we have fixed resources too. We have to think smarter around."

Rep. Hamner, a Democrat, and Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican, tried to carry a bill last year that would have helped legislators better understand the school funding formula. The bill called for a task force to make recommendations to the state Legislature for change, and had bipartisan support, but was "quietly killed" in the Senate Appropriations Committee one morning.

"We don't know why it died, but please know we understand the issues and are your advocates, whether we're Republican or Democrat," Rep. Hamner said.

"I think the larger school districts did the math and saw any change would have a negative impact on them. It just makes us want to fight harder. Rep. Rankin and I are committed to reinstating that legislation during the next session."

Joyce Rankin agreed that bill "is our best hope, to look over all of education and see how we can change to make it more equitable. I'm fighting for it too, talking at the state board and trying to get them to understand what's going on in the state Legislature."

Rep. Hamner noted that two recent ballot measures to increase school funding at the state level failed, but said it's a question Delta County Joint School District should consider asking voters.

"I know it's hard, but I do challenge you to think about other opportunities to increase your tax base," she said. "It is more expensive to operate small schools, but you value those small schools and the community values those small schools."

Rep. Hamner concluded her comments by saying she's excited, interested, supportive and willing to work with the school district.

Rep. Yeulin Willett, a graduate of Delta High School, said he could discuss a number of issues but wanted to highlight a piece of legislation that could reduce or eliminate governmental immunity for schools. With increased risk would come increased liability insurance premiums for every school district, he noted.

"I'm stuck right in the middle of this legislation, SB 213 and 214, and I've been tasked with taking the lead on opposing those issues and doing what I can to rein them in."

A school safety checklist is one component of the legislation, yet Rep. Willett discovered Delta County schools do not have counselors because of tight funding, and some schools don't even have cell service.

"It's a complex issue and I welcome your feedback," he said.

"On the issue of mill levy overrides and increased taxes: When I look at Delta County, what I see is they will oppose a tax to the end of the day, but what they will do is come out with a bunch of lumber, cranes, tractors and build you a football field. You might want to think about rallying the community that way. They may not tax themselves, but they will give a hundred bucks on a fundraiser or bring a tractor."

Sen. Kerry Donovan also addressed SB 213 and SB 214, saying it's critical to analyze how each piece of legislation will affect a school district "like this, versus Cherry Creek or Boulder High. Even within my district, legislation affects school districts in different ways. Never hesitate to call or email with a story that helps us explain your challenges at the state capitol. That's how we change the hearts and minds of legislators.

"Know that you have three people down there fighting for every day," she concluded. "Sometimes we lose, but once in a while we win."

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