Election may decide school funding

A national organization is asking Coloradans again to make a weighty decision about how the state should spend money on K-12 education.

Six years after voters approved Amendment 23, which mandates annual increases in state education funding, Colorado voters likely will decide in November whether to amend the state constitution and require all public school districts to spend 65 percent of their annual operating budgets on classroom instruction. Classroom instruction expenditures would include those made for educational materials and salaries for teachers and support staff.

Vody Herrmann, director of public school finance for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the most recent data about school district budgeting allocations is from the 2003-04 fiscal year.

In that year, she said, six Colorado school districts spent at least 65 percent of their budgets on expenses for "classroom instruction." Those districts are in Las Animas, Prowers, Pitkin, Weld, Teller and Mineral counties.

Herrmann said her percentages for local districts do not include library staff and materials, which, according to the 65 percent proposal, qualify as classroom instruction.

As a result, the following local percentages from 2003-04 are slightly lower than actual:

n South Routt School District: 57 percent for classroom instruction

n Steamboat Springs School District: 56 percent

n Hayden School District: 53 percent

Although budget allocations for local districts in 2004-05 and 2005-06 are available, Herrmann advised against deriving classroom instruction percentages from those budgets because of the uncertainty of several funding variables, such as whether computers are used in a classroom or an office and where the salaries for support staff such as teacher aides are listed.

First Class Education, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., already has engineered the passage of 65 percent mandates in Louisiana, Kansas, Texas and Georgia. Tim Mooney, political consultant for the organization, submitted a petition to place the measure on November's state ballot to Colorado Secretary of State Gigi Dennis on Friday. Mooney said the petition had almost 105,000 signatures, which, pending verification, would exceed the 67,829 valid signatures needed to place a measure on the state ballot.

"Our office has 30 days to make sure this petition is significant," said Dana Williams, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office.

Approval of the signatures is the only requirement for the measure to be on the ballot in November.

On Wednesday, Gov. Bill Owens provided the petition's 100,000th signature, throwing his support behind a measure backed by the who's-who of prominent Colorado Republicans.

Mooney said chairpeople for the state branch of First Class Education are Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, U.S. Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez of Arvada, former University of Denver president and gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman, beer magnate Pete Coors, former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, House Minority Leader Joe Stengel of Littleton and Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs.

The lack of Democratic support is unique to Colorado, Mooney said.

"In other states, this hasn't been the case -- Bill Richardson (a New Mexican Democrat) was the first governor to call for 65 percent in the classroom," Mooney said.

New Mexico hasn't passed a 65 percent mandate. But Kansas governor Kathleen Seb--elius and Louisiana governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco are Democrats, and their states have passed mandates.

Democratic lawmakers in Colorado defeated legislation for a 65 percent mandate last year, calling the legislation a flawed, one-size-fits-all approach that cannot best serve urban and rural school districts that have different funding needs.

Cold winters, long drives

There are 178 public school districts in Colorado. Vody Herr--mann, director of public school finance for the Colorado Department of Education, said each district is different when it comes to financial needs.

Rural districts may need to spend more on utility bills or transportation costs, Herrmann said, and urban districts with larger enrollments may need to spend more on support staff.

In other words, if the 65 percent proposal became constitutional law, each school district would need to adjust in different ways.

"Some districts may have to look at shifting expenditures from support services to instruction," Herrmann said Thursday. "But I don't know (how much so) until we get down to really specific definitions."

Herrmann said the 65 percent proposal does not specify what materials and which staff will fit under "classroom instruction." Variables include whether computers are used in a classroom or an office and whether support staff members such as teacher aides and guidance counselors would affect a district's compliance with a 65 percent mandate, she said.

In good shape

School officials in Routt County said budgeting changes would not be significant if the proposal -- which would allow districts to gradually increase their annual funding to 65 percent and also apply for exemptions -- passes in November.

"Right now, we're not at the 65 percent, but I really don't think it would take us much to get there," said Dale Mellor, director of finance and operations for the Steamboat Springs School District. "I really wouldn't anticipate any huge changes, especially in the first year. I'm not as concerned about Steamboat (as other districts in the state)."

In Hayden, Superintendent Mike Luppes said, "At this point in time, we'd easily fall within those parameters of spending, with no problem whatsoever." But changes to the proposal's specifics could "change its complexion entirely."

"I think that's the problem, that nobody knows for sure" about the definition of classroom instruction funding, Luppes said.

South Routt Superintendent Kelly Reed was not available to comment about the proposal, but a review of the school district's 2005 financial report shows that South Routt likely would meet the requirement.

Of the $3.6 million in expenditures for South Routt, about $2.5 million -- more than two-thirds -- likely would fall under the umbrella of classroom instruction.

Reagan-era textbooks

During a visit to Steamboat on Wednesday, Holtzman said Colorado school districts spend an average of about 57 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction.

"We rank third from the bottom (nationally) in terms of putting money into the classroom," Holtzman said. The 65 percent proposal, he added, would shift $485 million into classrooms "without cuts or tax increases" by asking districts to use future revenue increases -- such as cost-of-living allowances -- for classroom instruction.

A Hayden teacher said this week he would welcome some of that money.

"We don't have any (current) textbooks for grammar right now," said Kevin Dellit, language arts teacher at Hayden Middle School.

Dellit has taught for 16 years, but some of his textbooks pre-date his tenure. A composition book he pulled from a shelf in his classroom Thursday was published in 1982.

"We also definitely need more technology," he said, pointing to the four computers in his classroom. "The (school) computer lab is overused. We want to do a mini-lab in here of maybe five to 10 computers."

Counter-punch

State Rep. Michael Mer--ri--field, a Democrat from Man--itou Springs and chairman of the House Education Committee, has introduced House Bill 1283 at the Capitol. The bill, which is awaiting a hearing before the House Education Committee, would increase the required classroom instruction funding to 75 percent but would widen the scope of that funding to include school counselors, principals and food service.

Herrmann said most financially successful school districts follow an "80-20" rule, which divides budget spending between 80 percent for district staff -- including administrators, which are not included in the 65 percent proposal -- and 20 percent on operations and maintenance.

The success of this bill, however, is unlikely to change the fact that, come November, how the state spends money on the education of its children once again likely will be up to voters.

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