October 2015

The new math that's harming schools

Imagine that your boss tells you you’re going to get a much-needed raise. In fact, he says, you’re going to get one every year from now on. He provides you with a contract containing a formula showing precisely how much your salary is going to increase as time goes by, and you both sign the contract.

You are very excited, because you’ve been limping along on minimum wage for some time. At last, you’re going to be able to get a newer car and make some much-needed repairs to your home.

But suddenly there is a downturn in the company’s fortunes. Your boss comes to you and tells you that he can’t afford to pay you what he’d hoped.

What about the contract we both signed? you ask.

He explains that it’s still valid, but he’s going to start calculating your salary using a new formula that, instead of increasing your pay, will take it back down to what it used to be. Furthermore, even if the company starts doing well again, you’re not ever going to get the bonus you’d been promised.

How would you feel?

Well, in some ways, that’s how school administrators are feeling about their finances in the wake of a Colorado Supreme Court decision in September.

The decision in Dwyer vs. State upheld some legislative chicanery keeping K-12 institutions around Colorado from reaping the intended benefits of Amendment 23. Passed by voters in 2000, that amendment provided that schools were to receive a guaranteed increase in budget every year. For the first 10 years, it was to be the rate of inflation plus 1 percent. After that, it was supposed to be simply the rate of inflation.

But when the Great Recession hit, the legislature had to balance the budget somehow, so it found a loophole in the language of Amendment 23. Since it applies to “base” per-pupil funding, the legislators figured they could give the schools the promised increase in base funding, then apply a formula called the “negative factor” to adjust the funding downward.

Now, even as Colorado’s economy improves, the schools are still not seeing the funds they thought they’d been promised. The legislature has restored a bit of the lost funding, but not enough to return the schools to where they thought they’d be after Amendment 23.

A group of parents and districts filed a lawsuit against the state seeking to have the negative factor declared unconstitutional, but in September of this year, the state supreme court on a 4-3 vote upheld the budget work around.

Now, administrators say the negative factor is the “new normal.”

The measure is particularly harsh on small rural districts such as those in our own area. Here, a decline of enrollment in just a few students can make a bit difference in a district’s base budget. Rural districts face higher transportation costs and often have more low-income students to serve. They are already dealing with small numbers of teachers, so cutting even one more can produce a significant change in the quality of the education they are able to offer.

Everyone seems to agree that Colorado’s entire system of school finance is bizarre and unworkable, but time and again the legislature has failed to adequately address the issue, leaving small schools particularly vulnerable and in danger of lagging even further behind.

In the meantime, all that rural districts can do is seek mill-levy overrides, as they are called, to shore up the biggest holes in their funding.

There are two such measures on local ballots this November. One is in Dolores District Re-4A, which serves the town of Dolores and surrounding areas; the other is in Dolores County District Re-2J, which serves that county.

We hope voters will pass those measures, both of which are very modest. But permanent and more substantial fixes are needed system-wide, and our legislators need to quit punting on this question and tackle it directly instead.

If you get a chance, let them know precisely that.