While we sympathize with the financial challenges facing the Steamboat Springs School Board, we believe the board erred in its decision to turn down a $147,000 gift for smaller class sizes.
The board voted to reject the gift -- which is derived from half-cent sales-tax proceeds overseen by the Education Fund Board -- at Tuesday's School Board meeting. The vote was 2-2 but likely would have failed 3-2 had board member Tom Sharp been present. Sharp has previously voiced his opposition to the gift.
Board members Paul Fisher and Paula Stephenson voted against accepting the gift, which would have paid for three elementary school teachers to reduce class sizes at Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools.
Stephenson and Fisher said they feared the three new teachers would become institutionalized, that the district would be forced to pick up the cost of the teachers in future years. That's no small point. The Education Fund Board historically has given $350,000 per year to lower the district's students-to-teacher ratio to an average of 20-to-1, districtwide.
Initially, the school district matched that amount with $350,000. Now, while the Fund Board continues to contribute $350,000, the district's share has risen to more than $800,000 per year.
Board members also expressed concern about adding staff at a time when the district is facing a shortfall of up to $500,000 in its operating budget. Board members don't want to eliminate those three teachers next year if the Education Fund Board doesn't provide another $147,000.
Finally, board members have argued that, at some point, continuing to try to reduce class size is fiscally inefficient. They argue that whatever gain in educational value there is to reducing a class size from 20 students to 17 doesn't merit the associated cost.
We don't disagree with the board's concerns. Certainly quality teachers and access to technology, programs and other educational resources are equally as important as class size.
Where we fault the School Board is that its decision undermines the mission of the half-cent sales tax as it was approved by the community.
The tax is designed to supplement school district funding for specific educational needs the community desires, including small class size. There is a rigorous process for determining how to spend these community dollars. In this case, the school district's administration, the Educational Excellence Committee and the Education Fund Board agreed that using $147,000 to reduce class sizes at the elementary level was the best use of those funds.
In essence, the School Board is trying to manipulate the sales-tax dollars by rejecting the gift. That isn't the board's role.
While the School Board has the right to reject a gift from the Fund Board, such veto power should be reserved for unreasonable bequests. A gift of $147,000 -- which would fully cover three elementary teachers for one year -- is not unreasonable and should have been accepted.