As the executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Paula Stephenson and a 13-member committee are using lobbying and the legislature to represent small school districts.

Photo by Matt Stensland

As the executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Paula Stephenson and a 13-member committee are using lobbying and the legislature to represent small school districts.

Rural school caucus sticks up for small districts

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Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, has positioned herself as a fighter for the little districts in the legislative process.

Threatened by what she calls "one size fits all" legislation from Denver that potentially would harm smaller districts, Stephenson and the 13-member steering committee use lobbying and the legislature to represent small district needs.

Stephenson's most recent battle, against Colorado Senate Bill 212, is an example of how small districts' needs may be overlooked by statewide legislation, she said. The bill, known as Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, includes many stipulations about the alignment of curriculum and requires districts to enroll all students in a post-secondary and work force readiness program.

"We feel that it takes away a lot of control and local decision-making power," Stephenson said.

Colorado is a local-control state where districts are in charge of instruction.

Stephenson said the caucus opposes the idea that post-secondary and work force readiness programs necessarily are the same.

"We're nervous about what will happen to those kids who don't fit within a traditional pre-collegiate curriculum, specifically in the rural districts because we don't have the ability to offer the breadth of classes that : even Steamboat and Hayden can offer," she said.

The bill will take effect in 2012, but before that time, the caucus would like to have an amendment added permitting districts to allow some students to opt out of the additional graduation requirements.

"There are just some kids who are only going to get through high school," Stephenson said.

Steamboat's withdrawal

The caucus is comprised of districts ranging in size from 48 to more than 3,000 students, Stephenson said, with an average district size of less than 500 students.

There are 113 member districts out of 178 school districts in Colorado. Of those, 140 are considered rural and have 3,000 or fewer students.

This year, the Steamboat Springs School District, a charter member of the organization, decided not to renew its membership.

At a January meeting, Steamboat Springs School Board Vice President Denise Connelly said that after a regional conference, she felt Steamboat no longer was aligned with the needs of the other schools.

"Even though we are a rural district, I think our needs and our resources and just all in all, whatever facet you want to look at, it's not a fit," she said.

Stephenson, who lives in Steamboat and is a former president of the School Board, said Steamboat's withdrawal was "unfortunate."

"The caucus has done a lot of work for the Steamboat Springs School Board in fighting a lot of bills that would harm the Steamboat Springs School District," she said, including defeating a measure that would have removed half-cent sales tax revenue, which funds the Education Fund Board.

Greg Rockhold, superintendent of the Hayden School District, has joined the group's steering committee and represents Northwest Colorado.

At Wednesday's Hayden School Board meeting, he also proposed supporting the caucus in its fight to amend SB 212, a measure that was supported by the board.

Rockhold said the challenge to the bill was important because the "state is taking more local control than the rural caucus believes they should."

He said that although the proposals of the program would likely benefit students, the mandates from the state were not the way to implement the changes.

So far, 57 districts have passed the resolution to support the caucus in changing SB 212. Stephenson said her organization is busy lobbying state lawmakers to change the bill through the legislative process. She said the group has earned respect from members of the Legislature for its willingness to work alongside legislators instead of taking the issue to the courts.

If lobbying is successful, Stephenson hopes to see the bill changed by the end of the year.

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