Dozens of school superintendents told lawmakers on the house education committee Monday that Colorado needs to do more to restore K through 12 budget cuts. After a 2013 ballot initiative failed to pass and solve the state’s funding challenges, the problem now falls into the laps of lawmakers. A bi-partisan bill to begin pumping more money into schools got its first hearing at the capitol.
Public schools make up nearly half of the state’s annual budget, and in the depths of the recession schools took a hit to the tune of about a billion dollars. Representative Millie Hamner (D-Dillon) is one of the main sponsors of house bill 1292.
“It’s about what we value in our K-12 education and it reflects our top priorities,” said Hamner. “It’s a response to needs we’ve heard from school boards, teachers, principals, and the public.”
Now that the economy is rebounding, there’s more money to put into schools. The bill would restore $100 million in cuts. It also earmarks money for literacy, English language learners, more transparency and a new way to count student enrollment.
“It took a series of years to get to this situation and it’s going to take a series of years to get us out of this situation,” said Hamner.
But for many in the education community, the measure comes with too little money and too many strings attached. A few weeks ago all but ten of the state’s 178 superintendents signed one letter to lawmakers. They want them to focus exclusively on restoring budget cuts.
“We beg you to give us the money back we need to help our students,” said Kirk Banghart, the Superintendent of the Moffat Consolidated School District in the San Luis Valley. He urged the education committee to continue revising the bill. “This is about bread and water, we are still trying to barely operate on what we have,” he said.
Schools say they made different budget cuts district by district, and they want the money back without earmarks. Superintendents say they had to lay off teachers, cut bus routes, and hold off on infrastructure upgrades.
“We had very different needs as we took the money away and we have very different needs as we put the dollars back and we would like as much flexibility as possible,” said George Welch, the superintendent for Center school district.
The amount of money in Monday’s bill is also a problem. School districts want more than double the dollars the state is allocating. Representative Lois Court (D- Denver) notes that this legislation is above what the state is required to do.
“This bill is an attempt to do more, and we will evaluate what we can do as much as we possibly can with the limited dollars we have given all the constraints on our budget,” she said.
Court told several Superintendents testifying that the bill had been fully vetted.
“This has been through tons and tons of discussions. I know they’ve heard the request for these things,” said Court.
Many in the education community criticize the measure for trying to implement policies that were part of a failed ballot initiative last fall. Amendment 66 would’ve raised taxes to pay for public school reforms. It overwhelmingly failed at the ballot box. Now schools are saying they’ve had enough of legislative mandates over the years, things such as new teacher evaluations, new student assessments and academic standards, especially when they say there’s no money to pay for them. Lawmakers didn’t vote on the bill on Monday, saying they wanted to get more feedback before making any changes.