Yampatika summer naturalist Kevin McGarity, left, holds out a leaf for Sam Kitchen to examine at Yampatika’s Environmental Learning Center at Legacy Ranch in July. Steamboat Springs School District officials on Wednesday questioned the level of funding community groups like Yampatika receive from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board.

Photo by Scott Franz

Yampatika summer naturalist Kevin McGarity, left, holds out a leaf for Sam Kitchen to examine at Yampatika’s Environmental Learning Center at Legacy Ranch in July. Steamboat Springs School District officials on Wednesday questioned the level of funding community groups like Yampatika receive from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board.

Steamboat school officials question Fund Board dollars for local groups

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Half-cent sales tax ballot language

From the 2008 election

■ Referendum 2A

Without raising additional taxes shall the existing .05% (one half cent) City of Steamboat Springs, Colorado sales and use tax for educational purposes be extended from its current expiration of December 31, 2009 through December 31, 2019, and shall the City be authorized to receive and spend the proceeds of such tax notwithstanding any revenue or expenditure limitations?

■ Referendum 2B

If question No. 1 is approved by the voters, should the City authorize the Steamboat Springs Education Fund to share, in its sole discretion, some portion of the proceeds of the 1/2 cent sales tax with the other school districts in Routt County in addition to the Steamboat Springs RE-2 School District?

— Their resources are limited, their process is long and the stakes are always high.

Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board members work long hours each year as they weigh the millions of dollars in grant requests they receive. And as the Fund Board debates again this year how the money it oversees should be doled out next school year, consensus often is elusive.

The volunteers who disperse the city’s half cent sales tax for education agree that as their pot of money gets smaller and as more groups want a piece of it, the Fund Board’s job becomes more difficult.

“When there was a lot of money, these were relatively easy decisions,” Fund Board member Roger Good said Thursday about the annual grant cycle that starts in February and ends in May. “But now, the community groups and the districts are facing decreased funding, so there are more people seeking a smaller amount of dollars. Because of this, we have to be more judicious as we decide where to put the money so that it has the greatest impact on our students.”

Less and more

The Fund Board’s pool of grant money is projected to reach about $2.5 million this year, slightly more than last year’s $2.3 million allotment but still well below the $2.9 million it was able to award for the 2009-10 school year. This year’s funding level also is coupled with more grant requests from community groups, a situation that sparked a debate Wednesday night about how much education-oriented nonprofit groups like Yampatika and Partners in Routt County should receive from the Fund Board next school year.

Specifically, school district officials in Steamboat cited their decreased sales tax revenue alongside the cuts to their state funding as reasons the Fund Board should consider decreasing the amount of funding community groups receive.

“As much as these programs are great and they add something ... it’s the equivalent of putting a copper roof on something when you’re starting to worry about the framing,” Steamboat Springs School Board President Brian Kelly said Thursday.

He said this year’s school funding situation, which again puts in jeopardy programs like fifth-grade band and elementary school Spanish, warrants a conversation among district staff, the Fund Board and the community about whether they would like to see more funding awarded to the school districts for core programming instead of to education-oriented community groups and the programming they provide within school districts.

At Wednesday night’s Fund Board meeting, Steamboat Springs School Board member Robin Crossan read the specific ballot language voters approved in 2008 that allowed the half-cent sales tax to be shared with the Hayden and Soroco school districts. She noted it did not state the funds could be distributed to community groups. However, the question extending the sales tax itself makes no mention of school districts whatsoever, instead referring only to a “sales and use tax for educational purposes.”

“I worked door-to-door to get the sales tax passed for all three school districts, and every year I see community groups take more and more funds that could be used for our students during the school year,” Crossan said Wednesday night.

Fund Board President Kristi Brown said funding requests from community groups have been accepted since at least the 2006-07 school year, starting with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps’ Yampa Valley Science School and the Steamboat Springs Youth Orchestra. Fund Board member Paige Boucher added that community groups continue to provide a valuable “spark” for students that the district’s core curriculum sometimes cannot provide. Most of the community group funding is for programs that take place in Routt County public schools or for Routt County public school students.

On the same page

Leaders of the nonprofits that are seeking funds for next school year responded to Wednesday’s debate by saying they don’t want to be viewed as competitors to the school districts.

“Every year, this comes up,” Yampatika Executive Director Sonja Macys said Thursday. “This is not the first time we’ve heard it (from the school district). What I have heard fairly consistently from the Fund Board is they want to support schools and provide innovative programming, and sometimes community groups can do that, and it is appropriate to fund them.”

Macys’ nonprofit organization is seeking $17,000 from the Fund Board to expand its environmental literacy program into more classrooms in Hayden, Soroco and Steamboat. She said the expansion could impact 50 classrooms next year. Macys said Yampatika’s first grant from the Fund Board was awarded in 2010 in the amount of $4,950. Its second and most recent grant was for $8,000.

Yampatika is one of the five education-oriented community groups that together have applied for $87,000 in grants for next school year. The Steamboat Springs School District put in a single “effective classroom” grant request this year totaling $3 million. It since has been pared down to about $2.6 million and would pay the salaries of more than 40 district staff members, among other things. The Fund Board has asked the school district to further cut its grant request.

Seeking a fair share

At Wednesday night’s Fund Board meeting, Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks said this year’s funding environment puts the district in deeper competition with the five community groups.

He said the process also puts principals in a tough position when they are asked to write letters of recommendation for the community groups that seek Fund Board dollars that could be used by the school district to save staffing positions and core curriculum programs.

Libby Foster, Partners in Routt County’s executive director, said the total amount requested by community groups continues to represent a very small piece of the pie.

“Collectively, our community requests are a very small percentage of all the funding that will be allocated and distributed by the EFB,” she said. “While that’s a significant amount of money to each community group, in the big picture, it’s a relatively small amount. What we have to do is not look at where the funding is going (to a school district or to a community group) but instead what is the funding doing and is it aligned with the intention of the Education Fund Board dollars.”

Her organization is seeking $37,500 this year that would help expand its school-based mentors program into Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools. Partners in Routt County has had school-based mentors working with students in every Routt County middle school for several years.

If approved at their requested levels, community group grant requests would account for about 3 percent of the $2.5 million the Fund Board is projecting it will distribute in 2012-13. During last year’s funding cycle, community groups received 2.9 percent of the Fund Board’s total grant allocations.

Still, Kelly cited Steamboat’s Montessori program, which was canceled earlier this month because of lower enrollment numbers, as an example of a school program that could be saved by the addition of a teacher’s salary.

“We’ve always been able to (fund both community groups and our core budget), but now it’s coming down to a time when a decision has to be made,” he said.

A responsible discussion

Glenn Airoli, who co-chairs the commission that determines which grant requests will be sent to the Fund Board for final approval and at what amount, said it ultimately will be up to the Fund Board to decide how much community groups should receive.

“All of the requests appear extremely valid this year and made with the best intent,” he said. “I think a conversation (about community group funding) is a very responsible one to have. We’re walking into another year when schools are cutting staff and programs, and the question the Fund Board will have to grapple with is, ‘Are those programs more valuable than what is provided by the community groups, and what is in the best interest of the community?’”

Gretchen Van De Carr, executive director of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, said she hopes community groups like hers continue to be valued in the Fund Board process.

“As a nonprofit, we are fighting daily for every penny we get,” Van De Carr said. “In my mind it’s not a question of whether to (fund) this program or fund that program; it’s how can we maintain all of it because we live in a community with lots of support. We have a lot of resourceful people here, and we need to collaborate so we are not pitting one great experience versus another great experience.”

She said a change in tone in the annual conversations about the role of community groups in the funding process also would be welcome.

“I feel bad when we’re in these meetings and it feels like the school versus the community groups. I don’t see us as different, and we’re trying to accomplish the same thing, which is to provide our kids the opportunity to live a meaningful and productive life and give them all of the resources they need.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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