Vail Daily column: A pivotal moment
August 23, 2016
This evening in Eagle at the board room on the Third Street campus, the Eagle County Schools' Board of Education will vote on whether or not to place two proposals on the ballot for the November election.
Our journey to this pivotal moment is winding and complex and touches on challenges at the global, national, state and local levels.
The root of Colorado's ongoing and systemic education funding crisis rests on the ease at which the state's constitution can be amended. Through the years, many groups have been successful at placing things on the ballot and changing the constitution.
To get to the point on which of these most impact education, in 1982 the Gallagher Amendment was passed, which lowered local residential property taxes and shifted more of the burden to funding schools over to the state budget. Then in 1992, the TABOR Amendment was passed, which has had the effect of constraining the size of the state budget and not allowing it to fully recover from recessionary dips. Together, these two amendments have had the effect of forcing all of Colorado's educational and infrastructure spending to be paid out of smaller and smaller pools.
Schools had a brief reprieve with Amendment 23, a constitutional change passed in 2000. Amendment 23 was supposed to guarantee that school funding increase at least at the rate of inflation. While school funding stabilized with Amendment 23, it also created other problems as K-12 education consumed ever larger parts of a tightening state budget. Cutbacks came to other important sectors like higher education and transportation.
Then, around 2008 came the Great Recession, which needs no introduction or explanation. However, the effect of it on the state economy wasn't fully realized until 2010, when the state legislature invented an accounting parlor trick to help balance the budget. Called the "negative factor," the move involves adding funds required by Amendment 23 at the top of the ledger and then subtracting them out further down the page.
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To make a long story short, this "negative factor" cuts nearly $1 billion from Colorado's schools annually and accounts for an accumulated $40 million in cuts to our local public schools alone.
I'd like to say that Colorado is on its way toward restoring these cuts. Alas, the cavalry is not on the way from the state. The plain, cold reality is that without a local solution, our schools will never return to pre-recession levels.
The first ballot question considered by the Board of Education (called a mill levy override) does not just ask to recoup lost funds for our schools. It asks for $8 million in new dollars for our community schools and deploys them strategically and specifically. These targeted funds go to:
• Recruiting and retaining quality teachers and staff.
• Reducing class size.
• Restoring programs such as art, music, technology, counseling and physical education.
• Replacing outdated textbooks and classroom learning materials.
• Expanding hours and services in the district's preschool programs.
• Funding on-going necessary maintenance and transportation.
The proposal under consideration also makes clear that none of the funds can be spent on senior district administration, are overseen by a citizen committee, and sunset in 2023 — when the district would have to again ask voter permission to continue them.
The Board of Education is also considering a bond question for the ballot, which would allow us to make needed improvements and repairs that have been put off in the wake of state budget cuts. These include:
• Improving school safety and security systems.
• Better student technology to prepare them for tomorrow's jobs.
• Taking care of repair backlogs and improving energy efficiency.
• Renovation/reconstruction at Eagle Valley Middle School, Eagle Valley Elementary School, and Red Sandstone Elementary.
• Expansion of classroom space and the addition of career/technical program options at Eagle Valley High School.
The district's Facilities Master Plan identified nearly $200 million in needed improvements. The proposal the Board is considering scales this back to $144 million — moving us from wants to needs.
The combined tax impact of both of these proposals comes to around $3.40 per month, per $100,000 of value on a residential property. Due to the aforementioned Gallagher Amendment, the impact for commercial property is about three times this.
We recognize this is not an insignificant ask for our community. However, it could represent a turning point for Eagle County in our ability to bring in and keep talented educators and provide better career futures for our children.
While I prefer to talk about the potential benefits, I am sometimes asked what will happen if one or both of these do not pass. For the mill levy override, failure means that our services will basically remain at the lowered post-recession levels where they currently are and we will continue to operate at the whim of the state Legislature when it comes to school funding.
If the bond fails, we will see severe overcrowding issues in schools at the western end of the valley, especially in our middle schools and Eagle Valley High School. We will also be forced to use operating dollars (which we use to pay teachers and control class sizes) to fix things that break and must be replaced.
While I'm prohibited from encouraging anyone to vote for or against anything on the ballot, it is my responsibility to properly inform our community about these questions and their potential impacts. I encourage you to learn more about the district's proposals and do what you feel is right.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools.
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