Last Wednesday, the Colorado General Assembly pounded the gavel for the last time to bring the 2014 session to an end. Amid a flurry of last-minute deal making, the legislative session closed in a fairly positive way for public education.
A number of new education laws were discussed and passed this session, but make no mistake — the major policy fight was around funding.
After several years of repeated and significant cuts to Colorado school budgets, public education will finally see a reasonable increase in funding for next year.
To set the context, Amendment 23 of the Colorado Constitution was passed in 2000. It was designed to increase school funding at least at the rate of inflation and to protect education from budget cuts.
However, the Legislature devised a mechanism to circumvent Amendment 23 by adding funds to the overall state education budget, then turning around and taking them away from individual school districts and charter schools through something called the “negative factor.” This bureaucratic parlor trick has the money appear on one side of the ledger and then vanish on the other.
Over the course of the recession, the “negative factor” grew to $1 billion per year statewide. For Eagle County Schools, this cut was nearly $8 million dollars a year, totaling over $30 million in cuts over the years of the recession. The district’s entire annual operating budget is around $55 million.
Two bills determined school finance in the current legislative session. The first was the School Finance Act, which contained major elements of the school finance formula, including a 2.8 percent increase to basic school funding as required by Amendment 23 to keep up with inflation.
The second was the Student Success Act, an education reform bill that also contained some spending provisions. Most notably, the Student Success Act contained $110 million to reduce the “negative factor.”
STEPS IN RIGHT DIRECTION
This $110 million is a necessary step toward what will need to be a multi-year effort to return Colorado school funding to pre-recession levels. However, keep in mind that we are working to fill a billion dollar hole — so $110 million represents about 11 percent of what is necessary to restore funding to Amendment 23 directed levels.
Still, Eagle County Schools can expect to see an estimated $382 per student increase for next year. While our budgeting process is still in development, we plan on using these funds to support our valuable and hard-working employees.
To address workload and class-size issues, we will be able to make some small improvements in building staffing levels (which ballooned due to recession cuts). We will be able to provide our employees with the first meaningful pay increase in several years (after cuts and restoration of cuts), and we should be able to hold our health benefit costs to employees fairly steady. We will also be able to meet our obligations to adequately fund the state retirement system.
These are steps in the right direction for our teachers, staff, students and schools. But there is much more we still can’t address. For example, the staffing levels in schools are still far below pre-recession levels, cuts to services like transportation and school-level programming will continue from the recession years, and the district has several million dollars in maintenance and facility issues that will just have to continue to wait as we operate in a break/fix mode.
These local issues fold into more systemic problems of Colorado school funding. The Centennial state’s education engine is poorly fueled due to the structure of the state’s tax system and another state Constitutional amendment, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
The result means that our state invests in education on par with the least in the nation. For comparison, the Teton County School District (another ski resort community) lists starting teacher pay this past school year at $54,528. Eagle County Schools’ starting pay is $36,177. Consider the competitive disadvantage at which this puts our community schools when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.
THE SILVER LINING
By far, the best development of the session was the pressure put on legislators by communities all across the state of Colorado to restore funding to public schools. Eagle County was one of the more active communities in this effort, sending letters and visiting the capital to let our elected officials know that Eagle County puts a priority on our community schools. On behalf of everyone connected with Eagle County Schools, I’d like to extend a sincere “thank you” to everyone in the valley who took the time to be part of this grassroots effort. We made a difference.
I’d also like to express my sincere appreciation for the job Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush did in standing up for our schools this session. I’ve been critical of the Legislature and of both political parties this session, but Rep. Mitsch Bush has turned out to be a delightful exception.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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