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Legislators aren’t focused on right problem

Let me see if I can distract you from the real issue affecting our schools. Which of the following has the greatest influence on your child’s education?

  1. guns;
  2. corporal punishment; or
  3. teachers.

You guessed it.

On the other hand, which of the following bills is not being proposed by the state legislature at the moment?

  1. the right of teachers to bear arms in schools;
  2. the right of teachers to paddle their students; or
  3. the right of teachers to earn a living wage.

That’s right. Your legislators are busy at work debating whether teachers should be keeping your kids safe by bringing firearms to work. They are also working hard to determine whether to outlaw corporal punishment, a practice about as common today as quill pens. But there is no serious proposal on the table to address the school finance crisis that is driving teachers from the profession and making the rest regret that they didn’t take their elders’ advice and find a future in plastics.

Last week, we informed our teachers that the fiscal environment in which our schools are operating is looking grim. In previous years, mid-year salary increases were applied when funding increases exceeded the amount required for the fall increases to wages, retirement, and health insurance. This year's state budget situation does not allow for mid-year cost of living increases.

Typically, 83% of school budgets go to salaries and benefits, so teacher wages are a direct effect of school funding. Colorado school funding is complicated by a unique blend of constitutional amendments that even somebody with a PhD can’t figure out – believe me, I know – but their net effect is decreasing funding for schools. According to the Colorado School Finance Project, Colorado ranks 40th in the nation in per pupil spending and 47th in the nation in changes to school funding over the past decade. Colorado spends over $2,000 less per pupil than the national average and, when adjusted for inflation, $700 less than a decade ago. 

Meanwhile, other costs have increased. Health insurance has gone up 45% over the past ten years. This increase would have been much higher, but we have shifted more costs to employees; for example, the employee deductible has increased from $1,000 to $4,000 per year. The district’s contribution to PERA, the state retirement association, has increased 76% over the same time period. Our PERA contributions this year will be about $6.5 million, but would have been $3.7 million at 2006-07 rates – this has diverted $2.8 million from staff salaries to retirement contributions. Finally, as has been well documented in our mountain communities (and reported in the Post Independent), housing costs are rising far faster than inflation, and turning our employees away.

In short, while Colorado school funding stagnates, teachers’ real wages decline.

Enter marijuana funding, another great distraction. Remember all those promises about marijuana taxes going to schools when the marijuana lobby was trying to get your vote? Well, according to the Colorado Department of Education, of the marijuana excise tax in Colorado, $40 million was slated for school facilities in 2016/17, and only $5.7 million went to public school funds that can be used for teacher salaries. This school year in Colorado by comparison, voters approved $4.2 billion in bonds for school facilities, and the state general fund allocated $6.3 billion to schools. Put another way, marijuana taxes cover a thousandth of teachers’ wages in Colorado. It’s a much less regulated industry, so it’s hard to get precise data, but it appears that bake sales are contributing more to your child’s classroom than marijuana taxes are. Maybe we should hold more bake sales to raise teacher salaries. 

Finally, let me try to divert your attention with charter school funding and vouchers. Two bills before the legislature would drain funds from districts to increase funding for charter schools, or to allow families to get vouchers to attend private schools. Whether you are for or against them, these measures do nothing to increase the size of the pie, but simply pit one special interest against another as they fight over their slices.

What can we do? Thanks to the generosity of our taxpayers in the Roaring Fork valley, we are in the process of building 55 units of affordable staff housing which will start being ready for occupancy in the fall. Because housing costs are a particular pain point in our communities, this should help some of our teachers and other staff members be able to stay and work in our schools. But affordable rental housing isn’t a comprehensive solution.

The real solution will take a herculean effort by our elected legislators to untangle the statewide fiscal knot and present a viable, bipartisan solution for the voters of Colorado to approve. Given the political climate at the national level these days, hope seems slim. So far, they are trying to keep themselves, and us, distracted with partisan issues that aren’t going to help our kids and teachers. 

There is one bright spot. We are fortunate to have two legislators on the Joint Budget Committee who understand and care about education issues: our local Representative Bob Rankin, whose wife Joyce serves on the State Board of Education, and Representative Millie Hamner from Summit County, a former school district superintendent. Let’s hope that they can keep their colleagues focused on finding a long-term solution to Colorado’s fiscal crisis. That’s the most important policy issue our legislators can support for our kids. Don’t let the other issues distract you.

 

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