October 2011

The furor over school funding: Testimony by two local teachers spotlights budget woes

By Gail Binkly

When attorneys for the plaintiffs in Colorado’s landmark Lobato case went looking for teachers to testify about school-funding shortages, they interviewed dozens of educators around the state – and settled on three.

One was from District 11 in Colorado Springs. The other two were from Montezuma- Cortez District Re-1.

The testimony by Cortez Middle School’s Justine Bayles and Kemper Elementary’s Matt Keefauver was among the most dramatic in the 25-day trial in Denver District Court. The trial, which concluded Sept. 2, paraded a panoply of witnesses, including school superintendents, parents, and pupils from 21 different districts, national education experts, state legislators and state officials.

Keefauver’s and Bayles’ stories of struggling to work with outdated textbooks and a dearth of supplies were widely quoted in the media around the state, but they also struck home in Montezuma County, casting a spotlight on the finances of the county’s largest school district.

Re-1 Superintendent Stacy Houser told the Free Press the impacts of school-funding cuts are being felt system-wide – in aging facilities, larger classes, a smaller staff, and a chronic shortage of supplies.

“Certainly the facilities are a problem. That hits us every day,” Houser said. “We have large class sizes in elementary now, larger than in the past. We have had to drop some of the special classes like PE. Textbooks – we have had to postpone buying some of them.

“Administration – we had a director of transportation and director of maintenance. We eliminated both those positions.

“Almost at every level you could say that the impact to finances has been affecting the district.”

Near the bottom

Statistics paint a dark picture for local schools:

• Colorado ranks 40th among all states in per-pupil K-12 funding, according to 2008 data from the EPE Research Center, a division of Editorial Projects in Education, and as of 2010 spent $1,919 per pupil less than the national average.

• Among the state’s 178 school districts, Re-1 ranks 169th in per-pupil spending, according to state data. Colorado’s No. 1-funded district is Cheyenne County (Re- 5). Mancos is at No. 156 and Dolores/ Re-4A is No. 161. Higher up on the list are Durango (107), Telluride (14) and Dolores County (6).

• According to 2010 data from the Kids Count Data Center, 40 percent of Colorado’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. In Re-1, 62 percent are eligible. In Mancos, the number is 58 percent; in Dolores Re-4A, 36 percent.

Paper and pencils

What the numbers translate to is a tough situation for teachers, pupils and parents. Keefauver, a fourth-grade teacher in his eighth year in Re-1, said the lack of school supplies is a particular problem.

“I think the most acute shortage is in basic supplies,” he told the Free Press. “Things like copy paper, rulers, pencils. We at Kemper no longer have a classroom budget at all and haven’t for the last two years.” Last year, Kemper administrators for the first time asked each student to bring a ream of paper to class.

“When things are economically difficult for everyone and we ask families to supply a ream of copy paper on top of all the supplies they’re expected to bring, it really makes it difficult,” Keefauver said. “I feel bad for some of those families. You have three kids and you have to buy three reams of paper. I hate that they have to do that.”

But teachers are being hard-hit as well, he said.

“The first three weeks before school started, I spent $200 out of my own pocket on basic supplies for the classroom, things like card stock that I could use for signs. “Last Thursday we had an experiment in math that involved raisins, and graphing the raisins in a book. I had to spend $12 on raisins so I could do one experiment in one hour in my math class. You’re just nickeland- dimed to death.”

Prior to coming to Montezuma County, Keefauver taught for eight years in Buena Vista, a smaller district but one with more resources. “The community was completely supportive of education,” he said. “They passed a referendum and built a beautiful new school.”

For the past four years, Re-1 teachers have gone without pay increases, and this year they are being required to take two furlough days.

Keefauver said he obtained his master’s degree last November, which boosted him up on the pay scale, but the furlough days wiped out the increase.

This summer he worked at a local garden center and sold home-grown herbs at the farmers’ market to earn extra money for classroom supplies. Keefauver said he was not alone. “There’s a group of teachers from Manaugh [Elementary], three or four, who sell home-made bread and jewelry and house plants. They haven’t been to a professionaldevelopment conference in, like, four years, and they want to go.” Another group sold baked goods so students could afford a field trip, he said.

Keefauver recalled that he choked up during his testimony when asked whether he will remain in education. “It’s almost degrading to make so much less money than I was before, while being expected to do more. I want to stay in education. I love teaching. I love kids. This is my 16th year teaching, but at some point I have to ask myself, is it worth my sense of self-worth?

“I got into it because I thought it was a righteous livelihood. Now I kind of question that. I sometimes feel like I’m a nun entering a convent and taking a vow of poverty. ‘Give me less, that will be even better!’ ”

Drawing an airplane

Cortez Middle School’s Bayles echoed Keefauver’s concerns in her testimony during the trial, according to trial transcripts. She said 26 students in one of her classes were working at four different levels, yet there was not enough assistance from support staff to enable her to juggle all the kids’ different needs. Bayles also spoke about a shortage of supplies for science experiments, and a need for better textbooks. Teachers must share books between classes, switching them to different rooms throughout the day, and the books are often old, battered, and outdated, she said.

One day while she was helping a socialstudies teacher erase penciled-in profanity from textbooks, she testified, “All of a sudden, the book flopped open to this page. There was a picture of the Twin Towers, and someone had drawn an airplane flying into the towers.”

The other teacher told her, “Some of my students have taken the liberty of updating my book. You don’t need to erase that one,” and they laughed, she told the court.

“It was just a little comic relief, but we erased the profanity but left the airplane going into the Twin Towers.”

Unequal funding

Houser said the education-funding crunch can be traced back to passage of the TABOR tax-cutting act in 1992, or even to the state’s 1982 Gallagher Amendment, which effectively reduced residential property- tax assessments.

In Colorado, schools receive funding from a variety of sources, including some federal funds for certain special needs, but the bulk of funding comes from the state (about 65 percent) and the local districts, through property taxes. The local share has been declining for some 25 years.

In 1994, the state created a complicated school-finance formula under which the legislature sets a base amount of per-pupil funding each year. Then additional considerations such as numbers of at-risk students, cost of living and district size are factored in, and a per-pupil amount is set for each district. Districts receive different amounts of state aid based on the amount of local revenues.

The result is a huge difference in the amount of funding, and thus the type of schooling, provided in different districts. According to the per-pupil ranking from Education Week, the state’s No. 1 district spends $37,789 per pupil, while Montezuma- Cortez, at No. 169, spends $6,746.

Those inequities are at the heart of the Lobato case. Originally filed in 2006 by a high-school student, Taylor Lobato, and her family from rural Center in the San Luis Valley, the lawsuit was thrown out by some lower courts but reinstated by higher ones. Other school districts joined in the battle as time went on.

The State Constitution mandates that the state legislature “establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.” In 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that courts have the authority to review the school-finance system to see whether it meets this standard, thus allowing the Lobato case to move forward.

Plaintiffs contend that the state is unfair in forcing school districts to meet accountability standards while not ensuring that they have resources to do so.

Poorer districts don’t produce as many property-tax revenues as wealthier ones, and the cash-strapped state has been unable to make up for the shortfalls. Yet poorer districts are where students need more resources, not fewer.

Keefauver said the school system becomes a mirror of the community, and in Re-1, both are hurting. “There are – and this is not an exaggeration – there are students in our school who rely on breakfast and lunch being provided at school. Those are the two consistent meals they get during the day. What happens during the summer is really questionable. You don’t know if they’re eating on a regular basis or not.”

Once, he said, a girl told him, “Mr. Keefauver, I can live with you. I can clean, I can cook and I can make cornbread.” “I said, ‘You have a place to live, you live with your mom,’ and she said, ‘They make me live outside like a dog.’ ”

Keefauver said he doesn’t believe that was literally true, “but she definitely didn’t want to go to her house. I just didn’t see those types of situations in Buena Vista. There, it was like the Cleavers [of the idyllic 1950s sitcom], for the most part.”

Funding and learning

Critics have said that “throwing money at the problem” won’t solve it, but money certainly is a factor in a quality education, Houser said.

“I can’t throw out a figure and say, ‘This correlates to student achievement,’ but in a struggling community like Montezuma County, to say that money does not help – that is tremendously short-sighted. I think the funding does directly impact student learning in our district.”

For instance, he said, four years ago 70 percent of first-graders were coming into the classroom with a below-grade-level vocabulary. “That happens coming into the schools, not IN the schools,” Houser said. “Those students will take more resources to enable them to succeed. The more we have to enlarge classes and do away with necessities, the more they will suffer.”

A few years back, he talked to a superintendent in Montrose who was worried about having to increase class size to 20. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me. We’re going to have to up it to 25.’”

Re-1’s four-day week, adopted to save money, also has a detrimental effect, making scheduling much tougher, Houser said. “It makes it more difficult to get all those needs met for the different groups in a classroom.”

He said he has seen no evidence that lack of money affects teacher performance, but it certainly affects retention, particularly when there are districts an hour to the south, east or north offering higher pay.

‘Most people don’t know’

The point of the Lobato lawsuit isn’t to denigrate communities for being short of funds, but to question the way schools are funded, plaintiffs said. They did not seek a monetary judgment but a ruling that the current system does not meet constitutional requirements.

The state legislature would then have to decide how to remedy the situation. However, studies commissioned by the plaintiffs estimate that full and fair funding could cost $2 billion to $4 billion more annually than the state spends now.

As of press time, District Judge Sheila Rappaport had not issued a ruling. Whatever decision she makes is sure to be appealed.

Prior to the trial, Gov. John Hickenlooper stated, “If we lost this decision and suddenly had to find even $2 billion, the consequences to our prison system, to our highereducation system, to our health-care system, I think would be devastating.”

Keefauver said he was disappointed in Hickenlooper’s response. “I know the money isn’t there, but he should just say, ‘When things change we need to re-evaluate.’

“The reality is that the money doesn’t exist to magically make all of these problems go away, everyone knows that, but what we really need to do is involve the community so that people realize that these kids are all our kids and, not to be a cliché, but they really are the future. We all need to step up. It could be coming in to the classroom and volunteering. That doesn’t cost a thing.”

He praised Houser and the Re-1 board for supporting him and Bayles for testifying. “Stacy was the one that suggested it. I want the reality of the situation out there because I think most people don’t know.

“I don’t think we can continue to ignore the problem of funding for education in perpetuity.”

Ballot-box remedies

Voters tried to help in 2000 when they passed Amendment 23, which established a formula for annual increases in school spending. However, the legislature substantially changed the interpretation of the amendment to try to save money.

“Amendment 23 was intended to offset some of the ratcheting-down and keep K-12 above the tax cuts,” Houser said, “but the last three years that did not happen, because of the state’s finances.”

Over the past three years, Re-1’s budget was cut $1.5 million, $1.5 million and $1 million, Houser said. The entire Re-1 budget is approximately $28 million.

“I’m hearing we can expect the same-size cut for the coming year,” he said. “Every year you think this is the last time, but word is they’re looking to make up another $500 million shortfall.

“If we have to cut another $1 million or $1.5 million, I totally don’t know where it’s going to come from,” he said. “I told the principals last year that the cuts we make are going to have direct impacts on students and families.”

A measure on the November ballot, Proposition 103, would raise the state sales and use tax from 2.9 to 3 percent and the state income-tax rate from 4.63 to 5 percent for five years. The expected $3 billion that would be generated would go to public schools and higher education.

But even if it passes, Proposition 103 is not a remedy, just a way to keep education from sustaining further cuts over the next five years, Houser said.

“There is going to have to be a statewide, maybe constitutional, remedy and I’m hoping Lobato will be the instigator for that.”

Houser said educators look at achievement standards and say, “How can we achieve those goals with the cards they dealt?”

“Lobato is one situation where we have said, ‘We want a different hand. We want a different set of cards.’”

‘It breaks my heart’

At the end of her testimony in Denver, Bayles spoke about the importance of education. She read a paragraph one of her students had written as part of an assignment. His writing was unskilled, she said, but the message was powerful.

“He talks about how – what his family life is like at home. He talks about alcohol and how he sees people in his tribe – all he sees is drunk people everywhere and how he has to run from the cops because of certain family members. . . .

“He just wants to be a normal -- he wants to live a normal life, and he states that in this letter. . . . And just the last few sentences of it, he says, ‘I know if I do the right thing, my future children will have a better life than me. I will never treat my future children the way I lived. They will not grow up like me.’

“And the first time I read this, I just – I bawled. I just cried, and it’s heartbreaking because education is what breaks the cycle; and he does not have the skills to be able to do that. And he never returned back to school after this year. So I don’t know where he is.

“And this is just one of many. And . . . it breaks my heart because education is what is going to get these students where they want to be.”