Vail Daily column: Good work at the Capitol
March 22, 2016
Regular readers of this column know that a favorite target of mine for critique is the state Legislature and its education policies. I sometimes feel like a late night talk show host who would like to poke fun at something else besides what's happening in Washington, but the source material is just too rich to pass up.
Instead of another shot of vinegar, this week I'd like to highlight a couple of elected officials in our state Legislature who are doing something very right. Our own Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush (D) and Rep. Jon Becker (R) have put forth a quality piece of legislation called the Debt-Free Schools Act that successfully made it out of the House Education committee on a 10-1 vote this past Monday.
The Debt-Free Schools Act is built on a fairly simple premise: Save up and pay cash for major facilities expenses, as opposed to putting the community into debt.
Don't get me wrong — there is absolutely a place for borrowing money to take on large-scale facilities projects. It is similar to putting 100 percent down on a new house instead of taking out a mortgage may make a heck of a lot of sense in terms of the incredible savings realized by not paying debt service (interest and fees). For most people and school districts it's financially out of reach.
But imagine if a foresighted community decided to start putting cash into an account every year to take care of capital needs and to build up a sufficient enough account that it could pay cash to construct new school buildings or take on major renovation projects.
Currently, state law does not allow for this sort of effort. If a school district wishes to build up such a cash account, it has to reduce spending on their operations — meaning fewer teachers and supports for students. Even then, it might take decades to build up enough cash to construct a school in many communities.
The Debt-Free Schools Act simply allows a school district to go to the voters to ask their permission to set and collect a new tax for the purpose of building up a cash account to handle these sorts of large scale facility expenses. By doing so, a community can avoid paying literally millions — and in some cases hundreds of millions — of dollars in debt service.
At the House education committee meeting this week, Rep. Paul Lundeen (R) put it perfectly, "This bill makes so much sense — why did it take us so long to do this?"
Besides being a fairly simple and smart idea for funding and building schools, something else is remarkable about Rep. Mitsch Bush and Rep. Becker's bill — the way they are going about it.
Putting aside partisan politics, Mitsch Bush and Becker have put forth a bipartisan bill and have worked together to adjust and improve it through the legislative process, listening to criticism along the way and working diligently to take into account legitimate concerns.
Mitsch Bush and Becker are also taking the time to listen to the people working in community schools across the state to make sure their legislation works for our education professionals at the local level.
Too often, we get ideologically driven, half-baked, top-down education policy mandates from legislators who have little understanding of how the laws they make will really impact those doing the day to day work of educating kids.
However, this effort shows that it is still possible to pass good public policy in this state and in this country — but it takes listening, working together and a willingness to bend. Mitsch Bush and Becker offer a refreshing and much-needed approach with this effort. Let's hope they start a positive trend when it comes to education policy.
Kudos, representatives — keep up the good work!
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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