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District 11 hopes for a tax windfall, but the campaign has featured veiled threats and vague promises

District 11 officials warn of dire consequences if voters don't approve a $29 million property-tax increase on Nov. 2.

If they don't get the money, they say, already large class sizes in the state's fourth largest district could further increase. Busing might be reduced. Teachers' wages could be frozen. Security measures could be put on hold. Schools might be closed and consolidated, and art, music, athletics and student-government programs could be slashed.

Along with the warning comes a promise: If voters do approve the money, the district will respond by raising student test scores by 2003. And if those test scores don't improve, officials say they will freeze the tax at $22 million.

Meanwhile, reports of less-than-stellar student achievement has made this year's tax-increase proposal a tough sell for back-to-basics conservatives and D-11 constituents who favor basic skills instruction over technological prowess. And during a year when numerous other measures are vying on the November ballot, the public campaign to pass the tax hike has been lukewarm.

When they head to the polls on Tuesday, Colorado Springs voters will also be asked to weigh in on a heavy load of tax and bond proposals, including a cable franchise fee, a zoo tax, Gov. Bill Owens' $4.3 billion highway bond proposal and a sales tax for improved public transportation.

And, despite claims that the D-11 property tax -- 3J on the ballot -- would be used to reduce class size, that promise is somewhat misleading.

The bulk of the money -- $4.85 million, or 65 percent of total funds raised in the first year of the new tax -- is actually earmarked for technology programs, begging an obvious question: What happened to the cash voters approved for a massive computer infrastructure three years ago?

District officials say that bond money from 1996 was used to install a system-wide computer infrastructure. Now, they say, they need additional funds to get the expansive system up and running.


Financial nosedive

There is no question that D-11, and other school districts across the state, have been getting less and less money in per pupil funding from the state of Colorado for more than a decade.

In 1988, the Colorado Legislature passed the Student Finance Act, designed to equalize per-pupil funding statewide. At the time, lawmakers touted the reform as a way to more evenly distribute property-tax dollars used for public education.

According to the 1988 formula, money would initially be taken from wealthier school districts in the state and distributed to poorer districts that don't generate as much property-tax income to fund their school systems.

While those richer districts, including Colorado Springs, would be initially hit with budget cuts, state lawmakers promised that the funds would even out and all 176 school districts in Colorado would eventually benefit from the equalized per-pupil funding.

However, the Legislature has never adequately funded the reform act. And with large funding increases going to building prisons and roads, education funding in Colorado has plummeted, as D-11 Superintendent Kenneth Burley says, "like a rock." Here are a few examples, provided by the district:

In 1980, Colorado ranked the fourth highest in the nation in public education funding. By 1996, the state had dropped to the fourth lowest.

From 1977 to 1987, Colorado exceeded the national average in per-pupil spending. By 1996, the state ranked at 10 percent below the national average. Colorado students now receive $5,123 per pupil every year.

In 1996, Coloradans spent 4.1 percent of their incomes on public education. By 1996, that percentage had dropped to 3.6 percent.

In District 11, with nearly 33,000 students, the results of underfunding are beginning to show like a badly-frayed throw-rug.

The district has increased class size this year, while its student enrollment has slightly declined, and classes of 35 to 40 students are not uncommon.

Huge classes force teachers to become specialists in crowd control, rather than getting down to their passion -- educating students.

But while the district professes that class size is their No. 1 priority, their own breakdown of the proposed mill-levy funds shows that $5.2 million -- or 70 percent of funds levied in the first year -- has been designated for technology-related programs. By contrast, only 2 percent of the $7.5 million to be used this school year would be immediately used to reduce class sizes.

D-11 has earmarked $200,000 to reduce kindergarten classes in the first year of the tax increase. And under the district's timeline, jam-packed elementary and high school classrooms would not get any financial relief from the tax until the 2003-04 school year -- the same year that the tax would be frozen if test scores aren't improved by 15 percent.

Dan Koen, director of Colorado Springs Education Association, the D-11 teachers' union, who has been working closely with the campaign, declined to address whether all CSEA members believe that technology should be the spending priority of the mill levy, saying he hasn't "surveyed" all the teachers.

However, he noted, the union's elected representatives voted unanimously to endorse the passage of the tax.


Ads for dollars

In days when funding is scarce, administrators have had to scramble for funding, and a few of the district's solutions to secure more money have been both innovative and controversial.

Several years ago, administrators launched a rigorous campaign to secure corporate dollars by selling advertising on school buses. That program has been expanded to allow advertising banners inside schools halls, gymnasiums and stadiums.

Two years ago, D-11 signed a contract with Coca-Cola, giving the soft-drink manufacturer exclusive rights to sell its products in the district's 62 school facilities.

District officials have defended their efforts to commercialize classrooms as necessary. But critics have derided the approach, questioning the wisdom of pushing caffeine- and sugar-loaded products on students and allowing schools -- once the last bastion of commercial-free zones -- to be littered with ads.

And, in another unique approach this year, school officials hope to sweeten up voter enthusiasm with promises to boost student test scores if the mill-levy override is approved. The promise isn't legally binding, as it is not part of the official ballot wording. But district leaders insist they would be morally bound to their promise. It is unclear, however, whether future school board officials would also be morally bound to today's promise.

Specifically, district officials vow a 15 percent improvement in math and reading test scores for third graders by the time they reach fifth grade.

If teachers fail to improve student test scores, they promise that, in 2003, they would freeze the tax at $22 million, rather than collect the full $29 million.

"We feel that, especially in El Paso County, voters are willing to give you more funds, but they have to know exactly what they're going to get," said district spokesman John Leavitt. "People want a guarantee that things will improve."

When the bond issue passed three years ago, administrators made similar promises to improve mediocre student test scores. And though many educators warn against such litmus tests, saying they are not an accurate reflection of how much or how well students are learning, the practice is currently one of the most widely used methods to gauge achievement.

But two months ago, the district's standardized test scores indicated that students' reading and math skills have remained mediocre and have not markedly improved in the three years since the '96 bond passed.


Threats and promises

District officials also issued a warning: If voters do not pass the measure, class sizes will continue to increase, and other student programs will be slashed, effective immediately.

On Sept. 22, the district released a detailed list of potential budget cuts that they would pursue if voters do not approve the tax hike (see sidebar). Though the list offers specific, worse-case-scenario casualties to student programs and teacher salaries and benefits, the list includes only a reference to the possibility that "additional central office staff reductions" may result as well.

Board member Karen Teja defended the vague reference to potential central administrative cuts and said, "I don't want to send fear into the district by saying we're going to cut X number of jobs."

And, D-11 Director of Finance Bob Moore said the list is designed to offer an overall sketch of possible cuts if the measure is defeated.

"We're not trying to scare anybody, we're just trying to say what could happen," he said.

Assuming the mill levy passes, parents, students, teachers and district administrators will spend the next three years in anticipation of the year 2003, which will be key in several ways:

It is the year that the district has agreed to freeze the tax hike if test scores are not improved

And it's the first year that significant funding will be forthcoming to many programs -- aside from those that are tech-related -- which directly impact students in the classroom, as well as teachers. 2003 marks the district's first attempt to provide incentive for new teachers with an entry-level teacher compensation increase.

Instructional programs that won't begin to see a bulk of spending until the year 2003 are full-day kindergarten, K-5 art and music, athletics, middle-school at-risk specialists, increased staff to teach English as a second language and other special-needs programs.

At the elementary and high-school levels, relief from crowded classrooms won't arrive until the 2003-2004 school year, when a total of $1.5 million will be used to institute class-size reductions, presumably by hiring more teachers.

Moore said the bulk of the money scheduled to pay for technology-related programs in the schools is designated to implement programs that are a result of the bond that voters approved three years ago

In 1996, voters approved a $98 million measure designed to repair dilapidated schools, to build new ones and to install 8,000 computers in the district's schools and central administrative offices. Now that the infrastructure is largely in place, district officials say this year's cash is needed to help put those computers to use, and to install technical support staff inside school buildings.

"We need to put coordinated technicians into every school to make sure the teachers know how to use them," Moore said. "We've laid out a very specific plan, telling how the funds will be used."

D-11's Leavitt said administrators opted to go after the bond measure in '96 to improve schools first -- with the notion that it would be easier to pass a bond issue than a tax increase.

"We felt it would be an easier sell to the community to help us get our schools in order," he said.

However, now that the hardware has been bought, school officials cannot say where they will find the money to implement the technology -- or whether the new computer equipment might languish without operating funds -- if voters do not approve the proposed tax measure.


Low-key campaign

Despite claims of dire circumstance, the campaign to pass the mill-levy override has been low-key and target specific.

As of Oct. 12, Citizens for Responsible School Spending '99 raised $50,525 in its efforts to get the measure passed.

In mid-October, two weeks before the election, few yard signs were visible across the district.

A little more than a week before election day CSEA's Koen reported 750 signs had been planted by supporters, and some areas of town -- most notably the wealthy North End neighborhood -- had been leafleted with pro-mill-levy literature. Koen said 30,000 households had received flyers, both to encourage early absentee balloting and as straight promotional material.

As of press time, the campaign was not being heavily promoted on the local airwaves via promotional commercials.

By contrast, the $98 million bond measure that was passed by D-11 voters three years ago secured early and overwhelming support. The high-profile campaign -- called Save Our Schools -- drew wide community support when leaders banded together to champion the cause.

But this year, while D-11's student-to-computer ratio is higher than the national average, the computer blitz has left some questioning the district's priorities.

Bill Jambura, who is running for a seat on the school board, said he has been labeled a "technophobe" but accuses the district of installing a system that doesn't fit.

For example, Jambura said, while all teachers have been provided with laptop computers, he questioned whether art, music and gym teachers really need the equipment. And, he wondered, how many computers should be provided for access by first through third graders -- especially those who can't yet read.

"They made the classic mistake," he said. "They are building a massive computer system first, then trying to fit student needs into the system they have created, instead of doing it the other way around."

Also at play in this year's election is a growing frustration over D-11's performance -- and the perception by some parents and substitute teachers that administrators are often unresponsive to their concerns, as well as a perception that administrators are leading the current school board around by the nose.

School board President Bruce Doyle vehemently denies such accusations.

"We feel we give good guidance to [D-11 Superintendent Kenneth] Burnley," Doyle said. "The board knows more than most people realize."

The school board, Doyle said, is often stymied by such public perceptions. But, he noted, laws that prohibit elected board members from speaking out on personnel issues often leave the mistaken perception that board members do not take action when necessary.

Burnley himself continues to work under a vote of no confidence that was leveled by the teachers' union eight years ago. The union leveled the no-confidence vote after the superintendent froze salaries for three years in the early 1990s in the wake of the early budget cuts of the Student Finance Act, according to Doyle.

The vote has never been rescinded.


'Something is wrong'

In September, the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region released its first report documenting the disparities of educational, employment and housing opportunities between African Americans and white people in the area.

The results were shocking.

In 1997, the graduation rate for black students in District 11 was a dismal 55 percent -- compared with 75 percent for white students. By contrast, Harrison School District, which has a high percentage of minority students, reported a 78 percent graduation rate for blacks.

In addition, though D-11 reported a 9 percent black student population, only 4.6 percent of the teachers in the district are African American. While the dropout rates were about the same for blacks and whites (5 percent versus 3.7 percent), District 11 rated the highest overall in the area.

Racial gaps in education, noted Urban League director Jerome Page, lead to further inequities. The study also found that African Americans living in the Pikes Peak region earn less, are restricted in housing opportunities, have less access to health care than whites and are victims of racial profiling by cops.

Said Page: "In almost every area examined in this report, we find African Americans on the short end of the stick.

"Clearly, something is wrong."

"If our youth are consistently lower achievers, graduating from high schools at lower rates, graduating from colleges at lower rates and scoring lower on performance tests; if they are constantly denied access to gateway and fast-track courses and promoted from one grade to another and graduated without even the basic skills required with the assumption they cannot do better, something is wrong."


Mum's the word

The day after the Sept. 16 Urban League report was issued, D-11 Superintendent Burnley appeared before an exclusive group of community and business leaders to deliver a sales pitch in favor of the mill-levy override.

The luncheon, sponsored by the Economic Development Corporation, took place at The Broadmoor hotel, and was designed to give Burnley and four other area school-district superintendents the opportunity to explain their financial woes.

Despite the timing of the Urban League's report, Burnley, who is black, did not mention the findings to the mostly-white crowd of business and community leaders.

Nor, during his presentation, did Burnley raise concerns about recent reports of continued declines in student achievement in his district.

Instead, he focused on a depressing but familiar angle -- the massive blows that have been dealt to Colorado's public school children in the past decade by the state Legislature.

And, he drove home the warning that, if voters don't pass the mill-levy override, they will be sorry.

"The public will be angry if we didn't tell them this fall; [if we didn't] give them the message that they had a chance," Burnley said.

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