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Superintendents Want Greater Role In Colorado Education Policy

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0
The gold dome of the Colorado capitol building in Denver, Colo.

Nearly every school superintendent across Colorado put their name to a letter asking state lawmakers to focus exclusively on restoring budget cuts to school districts and drop bills they’re calling unnecessary.

“I think what’s happening in Colorado is the Superintendents are saying enough,” said Telluride school superintendent Kyle Schumacher.

When lawmakers worked to balance the budget during the recession K-12 education saw significant budget cuts. The cuts have hurt schools, For instance in the form of layoffs and delayed improvements to infrastructure.

"I believe K-12 ought to be our top priority but we're going to have to fight for every dollar."

On the Eastern plains, the Holyoke School District lost one bus route. Superintendent Bret miles says that “a big deal” in a district that covers 140,000 square miles.

“It really moved kids on the other five routes,” Miles said. “They’re getting on a bus at 6:45 a.m., 20 minutes earlier than they used to. That’s why one bus route matters.”

Miles says Holyoke students have also lost college and AP classes.

With a rebounding economy, there’s now more money that could go back into schools. And while Superintendents believe education must evolve, Telluride’s Kyle Schumacher said school leaders need a greater role in the conversation.

“Listen we’re for the change, but we need to have a voice as what some of that change is because there’s so much coming down and so much expectations and they’re all unfunded,” said Schumacher. “So the whole adage of do more with less is one thing. But it’s, do more with less, and keep doing more things but we’re not going to pay for it.”

What’s unique now is almost all the Superintendents are on the same page. All but 10 of the state’s 178 Superintendents signed the letter to lawmakers.

The superintendents want lawmakers to back away from two proposals in particular. One would require more budget information to be posted online; schools say they’re already transparent. Another would change how students are accounted for.

“Right now the way we fund schools is, literally, we count how many kids are in school on one day of the year Oct. 1,” said Senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver), a supporter of the proposal that would transition from the one-day count to an average rolling count.

“If you have children who move into the state in November we don’t fund them,” said Johnston. “If we have students whose parents move to the mountains because they got a job at a resort community, they never get any dollars for those students.”

School districts say the need is unproven and new reporting requirements would be a distraction and a financial burden. Johnston says he understands the frustration and hopes to craft a bill that will pair the requirements with additional funding – but he admits finding more dollars in the budget will be tough.

“Higher ed cut even worse and there are needs in everything from health care to corrections to old-age pensions,” Johnston said. “I believe K-12 ought to be our top priority but we’re going to have to fight for every dollar.”

Democratic speaker of the house Mark Ferrandino has already met with several superintendents to discuss their concerns. Even if Colorado had the money, he worries about restoring budget cuts too quickly.

“We need to find something that is both putting more money into schools but is long term financially sustainable, so that we’re not back in a place in a few years of cutting schools again,” said Ferrandino.

Governor John Hickenlooper is proposing to put millions of dollars back into K-12 as part of this year’s budget. But those in the education community, like Jane Urschel with the Colorado Association of School Boards, say the money simply keeps up with inflation and student growth.

“It does not begin to restore any of the cuts,” said Urschel. “He’s said we won’t have the dollars to do that, and we have other priorities.”

Urschel says her group and others are trying to find $50 to $80 million to begin restoring some of the cuts. Lawmakers are expected to introduce a comprehensive school funding bill soon. It’s not clear how many superintendents would support any proposal that includes increased budget reporting and student attendance counts. 

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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