65% solution: more books, fewer buses | VailDaily.com

65% solution: more books, fewer buses

Nicole Frey

EAGLE COUNTY ” More computers, textbooks and teachers to help educate Eagle County students ” that’s what Amendment 39 is meant to bring to Colorado Schools, proponents of the amendment say.

But all those computers, books and teachers won’t do much good if the students can’t get to school if funding for buses gets slashed.

That’s just what the Eagle County School District says could happen if Amendment 39 is passed. Amendment 39 would require all state school districts to spend 65 percent of their operational budgets on “classroom expenses,” such as books and teachers.

“Who wants to say, ‘No, we’re against that. We want to spend less than 65 percent on classroom instruction?'” district spokeswoman Melinda Gladitsch said. “But the truth is there are a lot of negative consequences to this. We may have to cut transportation. That’s how deep it could cut.”

The Eagle County School Board recently passed a resolution opposing Amendment 39.

While heat, cafeteria cooks and bus drivers aren’t included in 65 percent, the money can go to extracurricular activities, because “it’s part of the educational experience,” said Tim Mooney, who co-founded the “65 percent” solution with Patrick Byrne, founder of shopping Web site http://www.overstock.com.

“All the other stuff ” the counselors, the principals, the superintendent ” can come out of the remaining 35 percent,” Mooney said.

“We just want there to be more education for our money,” Mooney said. “Each year, school districts are setting records for spending, but performance is declining.”

Rural school districts, like Eagle County, would be most affected because of their high transportation costs, opponents of Amendment 39 said.

“If you can’t get the kids in the classroom, how are you going to educate them?” said Kate Snyder, spokeswoman for Communities for Quality Education Colorado, an issue committee against the amendment.

And transportation isn’t all that’s at stake, she said.

What opponents see as school necessities ” principals, nurses and lunch programs ” would also be on the chopping block as schools try to get to 65 percent.

“You can’t have school without a leader,” Gladitsch said. “They’re the instructional leaders of their school. So to say that they have no impact on what happens in the classroom is not true, as does district administration. So to separate the two is not an accurate reflection of how a school district operates.”

Operational costs, like heat and electricity also don’t make the cut.

“How’s the electricity and heat not part of a classroom expense?” said Bill Ray, spokesman for Coloradans for Excellent Schools, also opposed to Amendment 39. “Are you going to turn off the lights and make the kids learn in the dark?”

School district officials and opponents of Amendment 39 are also balking at the loss of local control.

“Every school district is different ” different tax bases, challenges, student bodies,” Ray said. “When you put in an inflexible formula, it wipes out the individual. We don’t want to have to ask the governor for money to put fuel in a school bus.”

Morrison said if Amendment 39 were already in place, districts would be unable to pay for additional safety measures in the wake of the Bailey school shooting that left one girl dead.

Platte Canyon School District Superintendent James Walpole, which includes Bailey, said if 39 passes, he may no longer be able to afford security guards.

School counselors also don’t make it into the 65 percent.

“It’s already a horrible ratio,” said Liane Morrison, co-founder of Great Education Colorado, another nonprofit opposed to Amendment 39. Morrison added there’s one counselor for every 300 to 400 students in Colorado’s urban high schools.

“We like that people want more funds to go to classrooms, but this is not a way to increase or improve funding in schools,” Morrison said. “This is a way to slice the current, undersized pie. Teacher, parents and administrators all oppose this, and I think that says something.”

The Bell Policy Center, a nonprofit group that researches and advocates policy in Colorado, also spoke out against Amendment 39.

“Based on the evidence, both Amendment 39 and Referendum J (similar to Amendment 39, but less constrictive) are ill-conceived, ill-advised and unsupported education policy measures,” a Bell report by Frank Waterous said.

“Amendment 39 would be particularly damaging. Its narrow focus would require many districts to cut ‘outside the classroom’ services, in clear contradiction to the research on what helps students achieve.”

Mooney pointed to states with the highest test scores noting they spend more than 65 percent of their budgets on “classroom instruction.” But Ray said there are many other factors that go into making a strong school district.

He added local districts would still be able to control how the money is split up within the 65 percent mandate.

And if a school district wasn’t able to make it to 65 percent, Mooney said a district can always apply for a waiver, good for one year.

“We would absolutely request a waiver because of transportation, based on that we are a rural community and we do have such high transportation costs,” Gladitsch said.

School districts that fail to make the 65-percent mark will have to work toward the goal by increasing classroom spending by at least 2 percent every year until they reach 65 percent. But if they don’t manage to make any progress, there’s no penalty.

“This waiver is this ambiguous thing,” Ray said. “You can apply, but it doesn’t spell out what the waiver is, how to get it …. It opens up the whole process to politics.”

Because there is no criteria for a waiver, districts are left to wonder if they’ll qualify, but Mooney said they needn’t worry.

“The governor is going to do the right thing here,” Mooney said. “Not one of them is going to let Johnny sit on the sidewalk because they couldn’t get a bus. Some districts may not be able to do this, but just tell us why you can’t do it when so many others can.”

Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 748-2927 or nfrey@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado

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