Steamboat Springs Gov. John Hickenlooper struck a local chord Wednesday when he said school district consolidations could be a way to reduce costs for public education, which he said faces a $385 million budget shortfall statewide.
Hickenlooper suggested reducing the state’s 178 school districts by about two-thirds, to as few as 60, to eliminate duplication of services and costs that can result from multiple superintendents and administrative teams serving multiple districts in one region.
“There’s no reason why you have to have the same bureaucracy repeated,” Hickenlooper said. “That (consolidation) is a direction the state of Colorado needs to go in.”
Hickenlooper covered a range of topics while speaking to more than 100 local service club members in Bud Werner Memorial Library during an hourlong stop in Steamboat Springs. The Democratic governor is hosting similar discussions across the state during his first months in office.
Some of the governor’s comments on education indicated future policy directions that could strongly relate to Routt County.
“I appreciated his comments about consolidation — that topic is sure out there,” said Shalee Cunningham, superintendent of the Steamboat Springs School District.
Cunningham said “conversations are beginning” about whether and how to fund a study of the potential benefits and impacts of merging the Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt school districts.
Hickenlooper said Wednesday, as a theoretical example, that a structure of one superintendent working with three school boards could be feasible. Cunningham, though, said such a notion likely wouldn’t work — at least not in Routt County.
“Probably not,” she said, with a rueful laugh. “That isn’t consolidation. … You can’t just wave a wand and consolidate. It’s very political, and it’s very sensitive.”
A state report released in January addressed the needs of rural school districts and raised the idea of consolidation.
“The report urged drafting of a new law that would allow for voluntary consolidation of those districts below a certain pupil size (for example, 1,000 students) with approval only needed from the local boards of education that it involves,” a Colorado Department of Education news release stated. “Any attempts at mandatory consolidation, the report stated, would be strongly disputed by local communities. The report … urges more cost-sharing and cooperation among school districts.”
The Hayden and South Routt school districts each have fewer than 500 students. The Steamboat Springs district has fewer than 2,300 students.
Cunningham said methods and structures for consolidating Routt County’s school districts could be addressed in a potential analysis, should local educators decide to move forward.
Hickenlooper said local fixes, such as volunteer tutors in classrooms to help over-burdened teachers, could be needed as the state addresses education funding that accounts for 42 percent of Colorado’s budget.
“There’s nothing good about $385 million” in cuts, he said.
Also Wednesday, Hickenlooper said, “We’re all about supporting your bike efforts,” after a question about tourism funding and Steamboat’s potential application for a program that could provide as much as $11 million for local cycling infrastructure through the state’s Regional Tourism Act.
Grant Fenton, chairman of the Bike Town USA Initiative, said he was encouraged by Hickenlooper’s response.
“I think he sees the potential for biking to be a real economic driver for both the state and, specifically, for Steamboat, to be a leader in that — and he acknowledged that he would support Steamboat being a leader in that,” Fenton said. “We sincerely hope we see that support as time goes on.”
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com