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Visiting policy makers hear 50J celebrations, challenges

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State lawmakers and legislative candidates, county commissioners and candidates, and several other state and local public policy makers assembled last week at Paonia Junior/Senior High School to hear an update of accomplishments being celebrated by Delta County Joint School District #50. They also heard about challenges the district is facing. The occasion was the district's fourth annual legislative day, a morning devoted to school issues during which administrators provided updates and teachers responded to audience questions.

The meeting was chaired by district superintendent Caryn Gibson, who -- along with other administrators -- pointed to the consistent work of dedicated teachers as the primary strength of Delta County schools. The district operates 30 instructional sites including the Technical College of the Rockies. The sites include large and small schools all of which are sources of community pride. In particular, Paonia Elementary School was recently awarded the Colorado Succeeds Prize for Transformational Impact. The award is considered one of the highest honors for the state's public schools and educators. (See story in the Sept. 26, 2018).

Gibson emphasized other accomplishments. Delta County is continuing to focus on school safety and the District will be seeking a share of state funds to expand safety efforts. Over 70 percent of the district's budget is spent on salaries and benefits and instructional staff received a greater increase than administrators for 2018-19. Curriculum enhancements are ongoing including one-to-one Chromebooks learning activities for grades 6-12 and increased emphases on the whole child and on science curriculum.

Michael Klouser, director of the Technical College of the Rockies (TCR), reminded the audience that the Delta-based institution is one of only three technical colleges operating in Colorado. Like its sister colleges, TCR is part of the local school district. TCR has a 96 percent student retention rate and a 99 percent graduation rate plus college graduates are placed in the workforce at a rate of 94 percent. The college's main challenge is finding qualified teachers since many potential technical instructors are already employed in the workplace at higher wages.

Paonia Junior/Senior High School principal Randal Palmer told the assembled guests that "for Delta County it's all about teachers" who care about students and take on extra workloads to help their pupils succeed academically. The challenge is to acquire enough resources to support teacher efforts.

Paonia Elementary School (PES) principal Sam Cox told the group that when schools "focus on individual growth, achievement will follow." The strength of PES lies in the continuity of his staff. There is a sense of family and community in his small school and he credits his dedicated teachers for the achievements which earned the school statewide recognition. His challenges are dealing with fluctuating class sizes, operating with limited funding, and helping teachers manage the paperwork and time commitments required by frequent testing.

Despite academic successes and teacher dedication, the district is facing a number of challenges. According to Superintendent Gibson, countywide enrollment is down from last school year by as many as 75 students. The reduction leaves the student population at approximately 4,700 pupils. And, according to local realtors, people currently moving into the area tend to be retired individuals who are "empty nesters" without school-aged children.

Furthermore, the characteristics of students are changing. There has been an increase in the number of new students requiring special education services along with an increase -- according to an internal district survey -- of substance abuse among middle and high school students. These circumstances create an expanded need for student support services, especially counseling. Some of this need has been addressed through grant funds which the district used to hire more school counselors. However, it will be a challenge to continue counselor support when those grants expire.

The district is also facing physical plant challenges in the form of approximately $35 million in deferred maintenance to buildings and mechanical systems. Transportation costs are also steadily rising as the district strives to manage a fleet of aging buses that must carry as many as 2,600 students to and from schools daily and also transport students to school activities.

Since aspects of state funding are tied to enrollment, having fewer students will impact resources but other factors are also further constricting district revenue. Local tax collections are down due to the closing and reduction of area coal mines and an associated economic downturn. As local tax revenues decrease, the district becomes more dependent upon state funds. The state's per-pupil funding formula continues to favor smaller districts and those with high costs of living. As a result, Delta County schools rank 152nd among 178 districts in the amount of state funding received per pupil. For the 2018-19 school year that amount is estimated to be $7,896 per pupil -- below the average statewide amount of $8,137 and far below the $17,280 per pupil allotted to the state's smallest district.

In the past, local legislators have worked to secure additional state funds. Such funds come through one-time funds directed to rural districts. There is also a state equalization formula but Ed Bowditch, the school district's lobbyist, told the meeting the formula is flawed and it puts Delta County at a disadvantage. Lawmakers and candidates present indicated that they would continue to support state efforts to provide additional funding.

With district revenues obtained from local tax collections steadily decreasing, the Delta County schools are increasingly dependent upon state funding. Local sources once provided 40-50 percent of district revenue. Now local support has fallen to 30 percent and the state has been increasingly unable to fully fund the remaining 70 percent.

These revenue challenges have led the district to begin asking voters to consider either a future bond issue or mill levy override. District plans are outlined in a related DCI article (Aug. 22, 2018: "50J explores bond, mill levy override").

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