Tying the hands that teach

Local educators oppose finance issues on ballot

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Steamboat Springs High School students Chase Grippa, left, and Heidi Lord set up a microscope in class last week. Amendment 39, to be put to voters in November, would require all public school districts in Colorado to spend at least 65 percent of operational expenditures on classroom instruction. Many local educators oppose the measure.

On the ballot

Fourteen issues - seven amendments and seven referendums - will be on statewide ballots in November. If approved, amendments to the state constitution can be changed only by a future statewide vote. An approved referendum can be changed by the state Legislature.

Amendments

- Amendment 38 Would reduce restrictions and requirements for submitting a ballot initiative or referendum by petition.

- Amendment 39 Would require all public school districts in Colorado to spend at least 65 percent of operational expenditures, in each state fiscal year, on classroom instruction. With limited exceptions.

- Amendment 40 Would reduce term limits for judges in the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, by limiting those judges to a maximum of four years in office; and would reduce term limits for appellate judges to a maximum of three terms.

- Amendment 41 Would drastically reduce ability of government officials, public officers, government employees and members of the General Assembly to legally accept monetary gifts or in-kind donations. Would prevent professional lobbyists from "giving anything of value" to such officials and employees.

- Amendment 42 Would raise the minimum wage in Colorado from $5.15 per hour to $6.85 per hour.

- Amendment 43 Would amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

- Amendment 44 Would legalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in Colorado for adults 21 years of age and older.

Referendums

- Referendum E Would extend property tax exemptions for disabled veterans.

- Referendum F Would remove recall timelines from the state constitution.

- Referendum G Would eliminate obsolete constitutional provisions.

- Referendum H Would prohibit businesses from applying for a state business tax deduction relating to services rendered by, or wages paid to, unauthorized aliens.

- Referendum I Would enable the state to recognize domestic partnerships between couples of the same gender, and would allow those couples to receive benefits - such as legal, economic and medical rights - related to the partnership.

- Referendum J Would require all public school districts in Colorado to spend at least 65 percent of operational expenditures, in each state fiscal year, on expenditures directly affecting student achievement. Allows for broader spending than Amendment 39.

- Referendum K Would direct the state attorney general to file a lawsuit against the federal government demanding enforcement of all existing immigration laws.

On the 'Net

Information about all amendments and referenda on the 2006 statewide ballot can be found online, along with "blue book" analysis by legislative staff and contact information for supporters and opposition of each ballot issue, through the Secretary of State's Web site at www.sos.state.co.us. Follow the "2006 General Election Amendments and Referenda" item under the site's "Quick Links."

— On a ballot crowded with more than 20 initiatives and 11 contested candidate races, one statewide issue stands out for Routt County educators.

Two ballot initiatives - one amendment to the state constitution and one referendum - would require public school districts in Colorado to spend at least 65 percent of annual operating expenditures on needs directly affecting student achievement in the classroom. Although supporters of Amendment 39 and Referendum J say the initiatives would ensure money is spent where it can help students the most - in the classroom - local educators oppose the initiatives, saying rural school districts face different challenges than urban districts and need flexibility and autonomy when managing their budgets.

"I think Amendment 39 is actually dangerous for education," said Kelly Reed, superintendent of the South Routt School District. "Its narrow definition of classroom expenditures ignores many services that are important for student achievement."

Reed said that although Referendum J is "somewhat better" and allows a broader range of spending than Amendment 39, the referendum still would place excessive controls on school district budgets.

"For example, what if next year, fuel prices skyrocket again?" Reed said, also citing high costs for heating buildings and plowing snow last winter. "In South Routt, how are we going to educate our students if we can't get them to school?"

Amendment 39

First Class Education, a national nonprofit organization, submitted more than 100,000 signatures to Colorado Secretary of State Gigi Dennis in February, beginning the process to place Amendment 39 on the ballot. Gov. Bill Owens publicly signed his name as the 100,000th signature.

Other supporters of Amendment 39 include state Rep. Joe Stengel of Littleton, a former House Minority Leader; and the Republican candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez of Arvada.

"We have to make sure that the billions of dollars our lawmakers appropriate to schools each year on Amendment 23 is not lost in school district bureaucracies," Beauprez says in a policy statement. "That is why I am championing the First Class Education initiative on the November ballot."

Passed by voters in 2000, Amendment 23 mandates annual increases in state funding for public schools.

If approved this year, Amendment 39 would require school districts to spend "at least 65 percent of (their) operational expenditures on classroom instruction." According to the ballot language, such expenditures include: "activities dealing directly with interaction between students and teachers, or other classroom and instructional personnel, special education instruction, tutors, books, classroom computers, general instruction supplies, instructional aides, libraries and librarians, and class activities."

First Class Education already has engineered the passage of 65 percent mandates in at least four states, including Louisiana, Kansas, Texas and Georgia.

Referendum J

The process to place Referendum J on the ballot began with House Bill 1283, legislation sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs. Initial drafts of the bill proposed raising the required allocation to 75 percent of school district expenditures, but offered a wider range of allowable funding.

The final referendum reduced the allocation to 65 percent, the same as Amendment 39, and includes many expenses that the amendment does not. Referendum J categorizes those expenses as "services that directly affect student achievement."

Expenses allowed only by Referendum J, according to several sections of the referendum, include "principals, assistant principals, academic or disciplinary deans; bus drivers, food service employees, school support staff, and athletic coaches; support of teacher training and professional development; support of college placement services, student health care and medical services; food services for students and transportation for students."

Referendum J does not allow the 65 percent of expenditures to include salaries and benefits of school district administration; services provided by a central school district office, such as accounting and human resources; and operations and maintenance of facilities, such as building repair, salaries and benefits for custodial and maintenance personnel, equipment, ventilation systems, and security systems.

Bill Ritter, Democratic candidate for governor and a former Denver district attorney, supports Referendum J and opposes Amendment 39.

"One of the foundations of Bill's campaign is the belief that we need to reform our public education system," campaign spokesman Evan Dreyer said. "But (Ritter) doesn't see the same type of flexibility in the proposed amendment - in fact, the amendment is so rigid that it might end up hurting smaller, rural school districts."

Local control

Reed also is a member of the steering committee for the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, which advocates for the needs of at least 115 rural school districts at the state Capitol in Denver.

Paula Stephenson, a former president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, is executive director of the caucus. Stephenson attended a March meeting of the state House of Representatives' Education Committee at which committee members discussed the two proposed initiatives.

"The general consensus was that neither the 65 percent scheme nor the 75 percent resolution were good ideas," Stephenson wrote in an update to caucus members. "In fact, many committee members stated they believed that school district budgets should be left to school boards to decide upon."

Jnl Linsacum, business manager for the Hayden School District, expressed that sentiment this week.

"I don't think our district spends money needlessly," Linsacum said. "I think where our administrators choose to spend our funds is where the funding should go. I don't think it should be mandated."

Neither Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Donna Howell nor the district's finance director, Dale Mellor, could be reached for comment this week. Mellor previously has told the Steamboat Springs School Board that Steamboat's expenditures already are close to compliance, should a 65 percent initiative pass.

To Reed, the initiatives raise the question of who should manage the finances for school districts in Colorado.

"In a rural area, a one-size-fits-all solution is just not realistic, nor is it equitable," Reed said. "Both (initiatives) would take away local control - I don't like either of them."

- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203, or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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