It is reasonable to assume a state’s booming economy would foster a democratic society that provides for all of its institutions.
It’s unfortunately a flawed conclusion to make in Colorado, where current rankings position the state as one of the richest in the nation, yet one of the most poorly funded when it comes to public education. Deciding what kind of school to enroll in usually never comes with ease and complete peace of mind for parents or kids in the United States. It’s propelled into even greater heightened feelings of uncertainty when considering how much influence educational finances have in achieving academic excellence and prosperity for students. And as a bulk of Colorado’s businesses continue to thrive and the population gradually spikes, many communities must work to keep schools on a maintainable path toward recovery and stability through bonds and mill levy requests.
“If you look at Boulder, Denver, Cherry Creek and several other districts, we’ve gone over and over again to our voters to ask for mill levy overrides to put more money in at the local level to fund schools because we’re not getting the same funding that we otherwise should’ve from the state,” Chief Financial Officer of Denver Public Schools, Mark Ferrandino said.
The Scope of the Problem
The scope of this widespread financial problem in our educational system has its chokehold on a sizeable number of neighborhoods across the state and the statistics clearly speak for themselves. According to various academic resources, Colorado school districts currently spend roughly $10,200 per student annually, leaving the state $2,685 amounted below the national average and 40th in the nation in per pupil spending. It’s an issue that reached a downward spiral over the course of several decades through a culmination of many factors. These are primarily highlighted with the passing of conflicting state constitutional amendments that collided in unpredictable ways, and an outdated school finance law which hasn’t been revised since 1994. These hurdles act in juxtaposition with a very complex and unique school funding formula. This has created major inequities and variances in per pupil spending for every school district. The two primary factors that determine per pupil distribution are a district’s overall enrollment and its number of low-income students. Collectively, these have created barriers for struggling schools to find financial relief and raise state revenues.
The North Metro area, however, has managed to overcome some of these dilemmas. Numerous surrounding school districts have been able reach outstanding results with tightened budgets for their students and rebound from cuts in remarkable ways. It’s an easier victory for some districts more than others. A large determining factor rests upon a community’s economic vitality and overall political approval to pass tax hikes through bond and mill levy override requests. This has been an easy feat for East County and Boulder County. Bonds are allocated for the construction, maintenance and infrastructure demands a dilapidated school can benefit from. Mill levies are funneled into important resources such as boosting teacher salaries and creating and improving upon various school programs.
Both mill levies and bond requests share a connection in dictating ratings for a school. However, once other types of schools are taken into the equation, these dynamics for judging a school’s success through varied budgets are transformed entirely. This is especially true for many private schools. The autonomous nature and tuition based structure often gives only the privileged and higher middle class demographic who can afford enrollment the access to certain beneficial support systems that are otherwise scarce in many public schools. Certain local private schools have introduced sliding scale tuition into their funding mission statements which introduces some fighting chances for lower income applicants desperate for other options. Boulder Sudberry is a democratic private school that has applied these honorable tenets into their tuition funding format in only two years of operation. Cofounder Robert Karyadeva explained how this outline for budgeting his school comes with its fair share of sacrifices.
“We mainly rely on tuition as our primary source of funding at this point and what that allows us to do is to essentially create the space for our students and to pay for a few of the staff. That ends up not being enough, essentially, and we depend a great deal on volunteers and helping parents as far as teaching pottery or teaching improv and other offerings at the school,” Karyadeva explained. “We have a sliding scale where most private schools do not and so we allow students to come in with a tuition as low as $3,600 to a maximum of $10,800, but we also have a ‘turn no student away,’or ‘no child away policy.’ So we don’t turn anyone away for lack of funds. If there is a student who is able to benefi t from this type of a school to where they are internally motivated, we do our best to allow any student who wants to come to join us.”
St. Vrain Valley School District, for example, has approximately $1,200 less in per pupil funds than many of its neighboring districts but has been able to boost some of the best ratings in Boulder County. “I think that it’s not so much how much money you get as much as it is how you choose to spend the money,” Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley School District Don Haddad said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not a certain level of funding that you need to be successful, but I’ve seen other districts who get a lot more money not translate that money into higher results and benefi ts for students.”
It was a learning lesson that evolved after slashed funding in the past forced the district to narrow its crosshairs on how to spend the money on a very limited budget.
“In 2010 they took our per pupil funding level back to the 2006 level because of issues with the state, the economy and those types of things,” Chief Financial Officer of St. Vrain Valley School District Greg Fieth noted. “What we did was focus on those cuts that wouldn’t impact those kids in the classroom. We have never lost that focus now that they made us do that in 2010. They made us laser in on what we needed to do and now we don’t add stuff back into the budget unless it goes through the leadership cabinet.”
Working with Limitations
That sense of direction and purpose on a constricted allowance is something that resonates with the faculty at Aspen Ridge Charter School. Now entering its seventh year as a tuition free preparatory charter school, Aspen Ridge has had to confront the challenges of managing its per pupil finances on rationed earnings. The school had to absorb an immense amount of debt that was reimbursed through this per pupil operating revenue assigned by the state’s per pupil formula. 28 percent of Aspen Ridge’s per pupil revenue paid for the construction of the school’s two buildings. Two percent of that capital was given to the St. Vrain Valley School District for their administrative support. Working to deliver a superior level of education on a strict Core Knowledge curriculum that takes pride in strong foundations in shared knowledge is a very difficult task.
“Having 70 percent of the pie as opposed to a 100 percent of the pie, which a traditional public school down the road has makes for a budget that has to be more focused, lean and on purpose —areas that we know where we’re going to have the biggest academic achievement for the dollars spent. That’s important to us and that’s also been a challenge and one of the areas is our teachers get paid less than St. Vrain Valley School District teachers. That’s a fact but that is also a problem,” Executive Director at Aspen Ridge Charter school Todd Cordrey said. “So, we’re working to do our best to constantly and consistently increase their compensation so that we can get it closer to St. Vrain Valley School District, much less Boulder Valley School District which is even higher.”
Unlike most charter schools in the state, Aspen Ridge and other charter school’s such as Boulder Valley School District have benefited from the mill levy overrides passed by voters. It’s an example of both districts being quality authorizers for their respective charters. For Aspen Ridge, that money amounts to about to $200,000, which is significant enough to provide a considerable level of assistance for the school to keep those demands in line for the coming years.
The teachers at Boulder Valley School District today receive some of the highest salaries in the state. The district has had to stiffen their budget because of this huge salary liability. The result has had a ramification on some of the district’s charter schools including one of its top performing middle schools.
“Boulder has always shared with its charter schools a hundred percent of all of the levies. So, unlike probably most districts where they might not share it all, we have enjoyed over the last 20 years a hundred percent of the district levies. Now, recently over the last few years the BVSD board—because their budget has gotten tighter because they have a huge salary liability, one of the highest in the states—they did lobby against those charter funding bills,” principal of Summit Middle School Adam Galvin said.
Preventing Poor Performance
Despite the triumphs that St. Vrain Valley School District represent, there are still a small handful of schools in the district who haven’t been able to maintain proficiency. Skyline High School has undergone the stresses of falling test scores over the years and has been exploring solutions to tighten the slack in order to make up for its lost scholarly advancement. Skyline has the largest student body in the district and was ranked worse than 88.6 percent of all high schools in Colorado in 2016, according to SchoolDigger, an organization that ranks schools based on K-12 school performance data. Skyline had fallen from 28.8 to 11.8 overall Colorado percentile in its test scores between the years of 2015 to 2016. It’s been a troubling matter for the staff to rebound from, and it’s one that has been worked on with vigor and determination.
“Each year we work extremely hard to better align our curriculum and unit plans with assessment frameworks,” Principal Heidi Ringer of Skyline High School said. “We have also conducted extensive professional development for our teachers around new PSAT and SAT standards to prepare our students for success on these achievement measures.”
These new approaches to prepare for test taking work to ensure a better collaboration for the teachers and students at Summit. These objectives will hopefully provide a better scope on the specific subjects each student needs to enhance upon the most. Right now, it is a main priority for Principal Ringer.
“If a student needs improvement in a specific subject matter, extra instruction time is planned for that student in order to achieve academic growth. With clear alignment in our high school-level assessments (PSAT 9, PSAT, SAT) now in place, it will be easier to identify the needs of students and close learning gaps,” Ringer said.
For Principal Ringer and the teachers at Skyline High School, time is a precious tool to utilize in order to locate and plan around how to advance a student’s weaker areas in his or her learned subjects. The students’ learning and testing environment is another equally valuable resource. Boulder Valley School District realized the significance of this when creating their budget.
Getting Creative with Funding
Using the money towards a differentiated learning environment was a fi rst concern for tax hikes directed to improve the brick and mortar demands stemmed from the district’s previously passed bond requests. When voters passed Boulder Valley School District’s $576.5 million capital construction bond in 2014, the small sliver of funding that went toward instructionally based innovation became the theme of the bond. That bond was the largest in Colorado’s history.
“A small component of that went into innovation. We weren’t sure how we were going to spend it, but that small thread turned into the major theme of the bond,” Assistant Superintendent of Operations of Boulder Valley School District Don Orr said. “And people focused on that, and it’s really about eliminating constraints in a building and changing the way teaching is delivered and allowing teaching to occur for all kinds of learning modalities within a building.”
The control and circumstance behind every fiscal decision a school district makes in Colorado is critical. What’s been revealed is that the relevance doesn’t change for any type of school, whether the focal point is concentrated toward retaining quality educators, the resources that can dictate improved instruction or the physical properties of a building or classroom. As the local shares of school finances in the state continue to plummet, leaving the state shares to fi ll in the gap, public schools will have no choice but to repeatedly make cuts to these important programs and vital services. Small strides toward progress are in place that are addressing the inequities in Colorado’s fractured system. These include a recently held interim legislative committee in July which is investigating the poorly functioning finance funding formula along with changes that passed in this year’s School Finance Act that will distribute an additional $242 to all public schools. Nonetheless, this small per pupil cash bump will do little to make up for the debt that still resides from the state’s negative factor. It seems a direct contrast to our country’s current thriving economy. Our leaders in education find common ground in the fact it is a solvable crisis boldly calling out for a reevaluation of our ideals and what they stand for with future generations in mind.