Updated: February 15, 2014 at 5:18 am
In an unprecedented move, 168 of Colorado's 178 school superintendents - including all 17 in the Pikes Peak region - have asked the governor and legislature to restore vital funding to an ailing education system.
The administrators sent a strongly-worded letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative leaders earlier this week, underlining that public school funding has plunged by more than $1 billion in four years, creating painful cuts in staff, programs and capital improvements.
The superintendents say that districts remain in a financial quagmire because available money is being withheld, despite a billion dollar surplus in the state's budget, a record balance of $1.6 billion in the State Education Fund for kindergarten through 12th grade and another $1.2 billion constitutionally promised to education.
"The dramatic funding cuts forced painful reductions that have resulted in increased class size, reduced services for children and deferred investment in critical infrastructure needs including safety and security systems," the letter said.
Inadequate funding impacts small group instruction, interventions, additional learning time, advanced technology, high-rigor instructional program such as STEM, International Baccalaureate, world languages, and postsecondary career and technological training programs to be successful in college and careers, the superintendents say.
"As superintendents we have a moral and ethical duty to advocate for children we serve and the overall economic well-being of our communities," the letter said.
"To do otherwise risks the failure of Colorado's education system resulting in lost opportunities for students. This is unacceptable."
The superintendents say that they understood that previous cuts were necessary, but now that the recession has faded and economic growth has returned, the state should release the money it has - and not mandate how it is spent.
"We think that they are thumbing their noses at K-12 education. There is the feeling that this is like a giant conspiracy theory coming to life - that they will never restore school funding," Glenn Gustafson, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, said in an interview.
Gustafson noted that the superintendents believed districts would be helped out of their financial crisis now that things are better. "But every time I go to Denver they say, 'This is the new normal. Get used to it."
State Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, said he supports Hickenlooper's budget increases for K-12. "But as we dig out from the massive education cuts we had to make during the Great Recession we need to be careful not to build a financial cliff that will crush us in the next downturn," he said in an email.
Sen. Scott Renfroe, the ranking Republican on the education committee said, "There is a lot of merit to the letter. Historically, I have never seen superintendents united like that. Even the Colorado Education Association and Colorado Association of School Boards are on the same side of the letter. Which is pretty historic at the Capitol. And we should really listen."
Hickenlooper's general fund request was for $267 million in new funding for K-12 education, for a total of $5.8 billion for 2014-2015, according to Henry Sobanet, state budget director.
"There is a lot of passion around the issue. But we have to balance all the needs of the state," Sobanet said.
"We are waiting for another revenue forecast in March. After we have revenue projections to agree on, we will have to evaluate the superintendents' ideas against many other competing priorities," Sobanet said. The proposed state budget $24.1 billion.
Funds lost during the recession have been restored to other entities that receive state budget money, the superintendents said. But that hasn't happened for K-12 education.
For example, the governor's budget for higher education would be increased by $101.8 million, to bring the budget to $761 million, in line with what it was before the recession, according to the Colorado Fiscal Institute. That money includes $40 million in student financial aid, a 42 percent increase - the largest in state history.
Gustafson points out that higher education, unlike K-12, has been able to use tuition hikes to help weather the financial storm.
"We are hearing that next year it will be Medicaid and health that get restored," Gustafson said. "To make a long story short, there is no intention to reduce the negative factor."
The "negative factor" refers to the way lawmakers, starting in 2010-2011, reinterpreted a constitutional amendment and funding formulas to reduce K-12 funding.
This so-called "negative factor" destroyed the equalization mechanism of the school finance formula and disproportionately impacted districts and communities with the highest needs, Gustafson said. The superintendents are asking that the legislature restore $275 million each year for five years to catch up.
Under Amendment 23, enacted in 2000 to reverse a decade of budget cuts in the 1990s and help the state catch up to the national average and keep it there, the state was required to increase districts' funding by inflation and pupil growth plus one percent through 2011, and inflation plus growth after that, Gustafson explained.
Districts receive the same base amount for each pupil, plus additional money for factors such as cost of living, personnel costs, size and number of at-risk students.
Even if Colorado had adhered to Amendment 23, the state would be spending less money per child in real dollars then it did in 1989, according to Great Education Colorado. (The state spends approximately $2,700 less per pupil than the national average. Wyoming spends more than $10,000 more per pupil each year than Colorado.)
But the legislature reinterpreted Amendment 23 to mean it could cut funding of those factors, explained Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.
The superintendents don't expect all of the $1.2 billion cut with the negative factor to be returned at once.
The monkey wrench is that the state did not tell districts how to cut their budgets when the money dried up, but now that some money is being returned, it has strings attached, Cooper said.
"They should not attach it to specific agendas or reforms. They should let the districts decide what to do with the money," he said.
In most cases that means replacing important items that were cut.
Cooper's district's budget is about $37 million. It lost $5 million yearly for four years.
"Our priorities are different than say, D-11. If we are all forced to spend in the same manner it takes away from local authority to meet needs."
One area he would like see restored are interventionists who help students academically.
Gustafson notes that D-11, which has 28,000 students, has cut its budget $35 million a year for four years. Although some of that is due to declining enrollment, the $6,500 it gets from the state per pupil is a drop of $1,000.
D-11 has closed schools, frozen pay, increased class size, reduced benefits, cut instructional programs such as tutoring and summer school, and deferred maintenance.
Rural district officials also are upset.
For example Buffalo School District RE-4J in Marino - which has 315 students and a budget of $2.7 million - lost $1.6 million over four years because of state cuts, said Superintendent Rob Sanders.
As a result the district had to deficit spend on its reserve funds, Sanders said. The district, in the northeast corner of the state in Logan County, had six months of operating costs in reserves. It must make additional cuts if that reserve fund falls below four and a half months worth of operating expenses, which will happen at the end of this school year. "It will get even worse next school year if we don't get help from the state. We will have to cut three to four staff members, which in a district our size would be devastating," Sanders said.
It cut an instructional coach and classroom paraprofessional, and makes due with eight-year-old computers at a time when the state is requiring assessment tests to be taken online.
"When they said 'cut anywhere' we did," said Sanders. "But now they are saying you can have some back, but you have to put it into certain places. One is full day kindergarten and we already do that. Another is a preschool rating program. Well, we only have one preschool out here.
"What I need is 90 computers for the PARCC (assessment tests) and they aren't giving that."
Besides regular state funding and the Amendment 22 money, there is another source of education money in the State Education Fund, which is for K-12 education.
Sobanet, the state budget director, notes that the fund "had a large one-time transfer last year of about $1.6 billion that came in above the financial forecast. The superintendents would like the state to spend that money more quickly. What the governor's budget has proposed is to draw down that balance to $700 million in 2014-2015, and the following year, down to $400 million. Then we would like to have a cushion for reserves," Sobanet said.
Cooper, of D-12, said school administrators have talked with legislators and key policy makers for months. "I would say that our local legislators are certainly willing to listen."
Superintendents are usually taken seriously by the legislature, Gustafson said.
He emphasized, "We won't be able to significantly raise achievement levels for students without these resources. And in addition, we will struggle to compete with other states that have more resources than Colorado.
"We should always remember that these kids are our future, and our country will depend on them."