School leaders battling for money, local control
EAGLE COUNTY — School superintendents across Colorado are up in arms, and they’re not going to take it any more. What’s more, the superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Jason Glass, is helping lead the charge.
Glass has his hand in lead an “insurrection” against unfunded mandates and top-down directives from state and federal bureaucrats, and is fighting for more funding for K-12 education.
“We’re concerned that the decisions on how local schools are run are coming from under the Golden Dome,” Glass said. “For the statehouse to make decisions that should be made locally is imperious arrogance. … Through the past several years we’ve seen a historic gutting of education, coupled with a blizzard of unfunded mandates on schools.”
Money and control
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Like most family fights, this one is about money and control.
School budgets took their first real cuts — not just a slowdown in budget increases — when the recession hit. That’s understandable, Glass said.
“Everyone in every industry took a hit. Education was no different,” Glass said.
However, the state has $1 billion languishing in an education reserve fund. In addition, state revenue is running about $400 million ahead of projections, according to state budget data.
The superintendents are asking for an additional $275 million in K-12 education funding. That would come on top of a 3.4 percent increase proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Some of that would recoup part of the state education funding cuts the past few years and some would go toward at-risk students in areas such as English-language development, special education and literacy.
The superintendents will be taking their case to the general assembly either Friday or early next week. They have 90 percent of the superintendents from Colorado’s 179 school districts in their corner, Glass said.
That’s good, but it’s not enough, he said.
“It can’t be just us. We need parents and teachers and people who care about their communities to let legislators know they’re not willing for their local schools to be run this way,” Glass said.
Billion dollar backstop
State lawmakers say that $1 billion is a backstop in case Colorado is hit with another recession. However, lawmakers are trying to dip into that fund for other education-related projects.
A Democratic proposal targets some of that $1 billion for new early childhood slots across the state. From the other side of the aisle, Republicans want to tap into the $1 billion to cover some charter school construction costs.
Glass said superintendents are not opposed to early childhood or building charter schools, but that’s not what the $1 billion is intended for.
“It’s wrong to put the state education system on a starvation diet to fund these pet projects,” he said. “Education should be non-partisan.”
In November, Colorado voters soundly defeated Amendment 66, which would have infused $950 million into the state’s schools. This is not that, Glass said.
“This is not Amendment 66. We’re not asking for new money. We’re asking for what’s promised from the taxes that have been collected already,” Glass said.
While state lawmakers are keeping the purse strings tight at one end, superintendents claim they’re forcing local school districts to come up with money to pay for unfunded mandates. One of the latest is the state and federal departments of education demanding that standardized testing move online, but providing no money for schools to buy the gear.
It will cost Eagle County Schools $2 million to buy the Google Chromebooks it will need. If each of Colorado’s 832,368 students get a $312 Google Chromebook, that unfunded mandate will cost schools statewide $259,698,816.
Others unfunded mandates from the state include reforms in early literacy, educator effectiveness and school accountability.
“The legislature has got to stop with the unfunded, unproven, ideologically driven mandates they’ve been handing down,” Glass said. “The people closest to the kids are the ones in the best position to make those decisions. We don’t need state government politics thrusting unfunded and unproven mandates on us and hampering our ability to educate kids.”
Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat and Vail native, said he wants school districts to get more money. He said he plans to introduce a bill within the next week or two — with no unfunded mandates.
Douglas Bissonette, Elizabeth School District superintendent, said solutions will not come from state or federal bureaucrats.
“They seem to think what citizens want are state-level, one-size-fits-all solutions for public education,” Bissonette told the Denver Post. “The reality is communities are supporting districts through bond issues and mill-levy overrides because they want local solutions that represent their values and goals.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@ vaildaily.com.