In February, the Eagle County Board of Education passed a resolution in support of restoring education to constitutionally directed levels and encouraging our state legislators to live up to the promise our state has made to adequately invest in the education of our children. Since 2000, the state of Colorado has used a funding formula that guaranteed (through Amendment 23) the adequate funding of education in good times and in bad. Amendment 23 requires that the state fund education at a level that keeps pace with inflation.
When we entered the Great Recession, our legislators found a way around Amendment 23 and reduced funding to schools using a legislative parlor trick called the “negative factor” in the school funding formula. It is estimated that through this “negative factor” the state has reduced funding to schools by over $2.2 billion. Eagle County School District’s funding has been reduced by around $30 million dollars since 2010, resulting in cuts being felt by our teachers and our students every day.
Our reduction in funding has caused the School Board to make some hard cuts, including:
• Eliminating the equivalent of 70 skilled staff positions.
• Increasing class sizes.
• Freezing pay levels for the past four years.
• Eliminating investments in technology.
• Eliminating preventative maintenance of facilities.
• Reducing bus transportation to students.
As budget revenue projections were calculated for the state in 2014, it became apparent that there will be additional revenue for legislators to allocate for next year. Amazingly, there is no mention of replacing the funds they removed by the “negative factor.” The lower level of funding created by the “negative factor” now seems to be positioned as the “new normal” moving forward. Districts that are struggling with the reduced funding, and unfunded mandates are expected to just keep “making things work.”
This caused a grassroots rebellion of superintendents, school board members, and parents. Along with other superintendents, our very own Jason Glass has been instrumental in leading this charge to reinstate the funds.
Allowing the legislators to carry forward small education funding initiatives is not an answer to the problem. It seems obvious to those of us outside politics that when the state takes funds away from districts and requires them to prioritize local cuts, then when the state replaces funds the districts should choose how to prioritize their reinstatement. Our legislators are good people who are trying their best to help improve education. The problem is that they cannot legislate a solution that will work for all of the 178 school districts in the state. The local school district can decide best which programs and supports will meet the needs of their students. The needs of a rural district with less than 100 students are much different than an urban school district with 80,000 students. Replacing the negative factor would put the decision making power in the hands of those closest to understanding the issues in each school district.
No one has been suggesting that the legislators find a billion dollars a year to fully replace the negative factor in one fell swoop either, but we can at least chip away at the problem. Since the beginning of the legislative session we have made great strides in getting this message to our legislators. And currently there is support building to at least start to buy down the negative factor over the next five years.
A number of legislators have signed a petition indicating they support this effort, but there are some that still need to get the message. Amendment 23 was passed by a vote of the people in 2000 to assure that our education funding would at a minimum, keep up with inflation and move us closer to the national average in educational funding. Our current ranking of 42nd is unacceptable and puts the future of our state’s economic competitiveness in peril. Please join the Eagle County School District’s Board of Education in reaching out to the legislators and asking for their support to begin to restore the “negative factor.”
Jeanne McQueeney is president of the Eagle County Board of Education.