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School district leaders can't speak as one on tax increase 

66 divided by three

With ballots going out this week, voters will soon decide the fate of Amendment 66, the proposed $950 million tax increase for education. The law would usher in reforms aimed at increasing student achievement and creating greater financial equity in the state's schools.

Opinions on 66 run the gamut — in fact, a lawsuit that was to be decided after press time threatened to pull the measure from the ballot completely. But one might expect that school districts would support 66. After all, to some degree, each would gain from its passage, and all districts have been pinched by the state's recession-era cutbacks. (Since 2009-10, state education programming has been cut by $78 million, confirms the Department of Education's Jennifer Okes.)

Take Academy District 20. Chief Financial Officer Tom Gregory says during the recession there have been years when they haven't updated technology, and one year when they didn't buy any new textbooks.

"We've lost about 30 people out of our administrative building," he says. "... We've cut way back on the funding of capital."

At the same time, D-20 has gained students, and it has a mill levy override that passed in 2008 that is still phasing in. Those two factors have helped offset losses.

So where does the D-20 board stand on Amendment 66? It doesn't. Gregory explains it's declined to take a position.

But if D-20 is playing the middle, two other districts find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. And the reasons why they're so far apart hint at just how complicated school reform actually is.

D-12: Not the priority

Walt Cooper, superintendent of traditionally wealthy Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, points out that "in 2009 and 2010 we suffered, on the proportionate basis, the same cuts that everybody else did."

The impact has been magnified by the fact that D-12 has many poorer children with greater needs these days — they permit into the district. Still, Cooper says, the closing of an elementary school in 2010, and the passage of a local mill levy in 2011 have helped his district ride out the recession. And he's not sure 66 is the answer to his remaining problems — for a couple reasons.

First, he notes that the tax hike would only offer D-12 a relatively small increase in operations funding, as compared to districts with larger percentages of at-risk kids. Second, and most importantly, D-12's biggest need now is repairs and upgrades to its old buildings, something not covered by 66.

In fact, the district's school board will soon have to go to voters to ask for extra dollars to fund the work. And Cooper says he's concerned that constituents will be less likely to support that if they're already paying for a statewide tax increase.

"If we didn't have the large-scale capital needs right in front of us, and knowing that we were going to have to go to the voters very soon with that, our conversation with the board, I'm sure, would have been very, very different," Cooper told the Independent.

But as it is, the board wrote an open letter printed in the Oct. 11 Cheyenne Edition that said it couldn't endorse 66.

D-11: Badly needed

Like Cooper, Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer in Colorado Springs District 11, has served with the School Finance Partnership, which helped inform many of the proposed reforms 66 would usher in. He says 66 isn't perfect, but it's needed in D-11, bedeviled by aging infrastructure, declining enrollment and student poverty. More than 54 percent of D-11 kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

"In the last five years, we have closed 14 schools," Gustafson says. "We have increased class size two different times, which is a reduction in teachers. We have frozen pay for, I think, three or four years in a row, with the exception of some tiny things here and there. ...

"We've cut summer school. We've cut instructional replacement materials. We've deferred maintenance on our schools. We've deferred maintenance on our buildings. We have delayed replacement of technology and facilities. ... And we've cut our administration by twice as much as any other part of the budget in terms of cuts, and we've cut the number of people in administration by three times as much as the other employee groups."

Those cuts have hit the classroom. In the 2010-11 school year, there were an average of 22 kids in a class for grades kindergarten through second, 24 in third and fourth, 25 in fifth, 28 in middle school, and 31.5 in high school. By 2012-13, those numbers had ballooned to 25 in kindergarten and grade school, 30 in middle school, and 33.5 in high school.

Meanwhile, with the 2012 closing of Lincoln and Bates elementary schools, nearby schools have absorbed a boom of youngsters. Last year's closing of Wasson High School has also redistributed kids among the four remaining high schools. Doherty and Palmer are near capacity.

On the bright side, Gustafson notes that D-11's alternative, technical and adult schools are settling into the old Wasson building, The $1.9 million in upgrades needed to accommodate them are not complete, but the work appears to be within budget.

Still, Gustafson says that even huge changes like school closures won't solve all the money problems. That, he says, will take a huge influx of cash — like what's proposed in Amendment 66.

stanley@csindy.com

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