DENVER - Saying the time is now to restore full funding for public education in Colorado, 60 of the state's 178 superintendents rallied at the Capitol Monday and released an advocacy statement detailing their requests for policymakers.
"At a time we should be strengthening our schools we are falling behind in funding our schools," said Kirk Banghart, superintendent of Moffat Consolidated School District 2 in the San Luis Valley.
"Our responsibility is to advocate for a level playing field for Colorado's children. All students deserve the opportunity for success."
On the cusp of the legislative session that starts Wednesday, hundreds of parents, school leaders, business representatives and several politicians gathered in the lobby of the Capitol to hear speakers call for adequate funding.
"For the last six years our schools have suffered continuous rounds of devastating budget cuts. The need to make cuts made sense in a bad economy, but now things are different, and we need to make sure our schools benefit from an improving economy," said Westminster City Councilwoman Shannon Bird, a founder of Adams 12 Community Action Network. "We are in dire need of a solution right now. Public education is an investment we owe children in our state. This isn't a partisan issue."
Lawmakers have withheld more than $5 billion in state funding from schools since 2010 due to the recession and the allocation of money earmarked for public schools to other state departments. A portion has been restored in recent years, but not enough, superintendents say.
"This debt owed to Colorado schools has continued long enough," reads an advocacy statement signed by 166 superintendents and authored by Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 in Colorado Springs.
Although the economy has improved, Gov. John Hickenlooper's proposed $27 billion budget for 2016-2017 includes more education cuts - and refunds to taxpayers through the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
The request the Joint Budget Committee will consider includes adding $50 million to the public education shortfall, boosting what's known as the negative factor to $905 million.
The proposal also factors in a $104 increase in per-pupil K-12 spending, taking it to $7,398.
Still, Colorado's per-pupil funding is $2,000 less than the national average, said Bruce Messinger, superintendent of Boulder Valley School District.
"We're asking that the hole not get any deeper, that we maintain funding and keep up with inflation and enrollment growth," he said. "Over the last 20 years we've seen it ratcheted down to a level that's unacceptable."
Among the superintendents' pleas: reduce the negative factor, funnel revenue from higher property tax collections and increased enrollment growth amounting to some $175 million to schools, and remove the Hospital Provider Fee from TABOR restrictions and use some of that money for schools.
"We represent large, small, rural and urban districts and 90 percent of the kids enrolled in the state, and we're advocating for the most fundamental needs," Cooper said in an interview. "We're not just standing in line for a money grab."
Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Andre Spencer was one of 14 local superintendents who signed the advocacy statement. He also attended Monday's rally.
"School finance is important for everyone to understand because of the importance it has on educating students, especially those from low socioeconomic situations," Spencer said in an interview.
Another rally attendee, Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, said a "serious look" at priorities is in order.
"Our budget is a matter of listing priorities, and I believe education needs to be priority No. 1," he said in an interview.
A retired educator who led a charge for reduced state testing during last year's session, Merrifield said he's "cautiously hopeful" but "not optimistic" that lawmakers will agree on a solution to school funding this session.
"It's like déjà vu all over again," Merrifield said. "I was first elected (to the state Legislature) in 2002, and we've never seriously found a solution to the underfunding of the public education system in Colorado."
This is the third year superintendents have banded together to, like the residents of Dr. Seuss' Whoville, speak with a collective voice in the hopes they will be heard.
"Superintendents from around the state said we need to be more vocal as education experts and leaders in our communities and more assertive in how the decisions made at the Capitol impact us locally," Cooper said. "And we have broad-based support."