Colorado Rural Schools Caucus paints grim picture of education cuts |

Colorado Rural Schools Caucus paints grim picture of education cuts

Jack Weinstein

Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, gives a presentation about education funding Wednesday at the George P. Sauer Human Services Center.

— Local education officials heard grim predictions about the future of statewide education funding during a forum Wednesday afternoon at the Steamboat Springs School District's administrative offices.

The state has proposed a $250 million net reduction to K-12 education after cutting $260 million last year. Colorado Rural Schools Caucus Executive Director Paula Stephenson, who hosted the forum, said she expected cuts to continue in the coming years.

Each Routt County school district expects cuts to its 2011-12 budgets, after having made cuts the past two years.

Despite the cuts, Stephenson praised rural districts, which exceed state averages on the Colorado State Assessment Pro-

gram tests, graduation rates and postsecondary education enrollment. She said rural districts are overachieving despite challenges such as declining revenues, isolation, declining student enrollment and other factors.

"Given all those challenges, it's extraordinary we're succeeding as well as we are," said Stephenson, a Steamboat Springs School Board member from 2000 to 2005.

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The Rural Schools Caucus hosted the forum, which included presentations from representatives from Denver nonprofits Great Education Colorado and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.

Casey Shea, research and community partnerships coordinator for Great Education Colorado, said the economic recession isn't the only reason Colorado public education funding is taking a hit. She said K-12 education already is underfunded and ranked 40th among states in per-pupil spending — nearly $1,700 less than the national average — according to figures from 2007-08, the most recent available.

Shea added that Colorado is 49th in state taxes and 46th in combined state and local taxes, which means it isn't generating revenue at rates as high as other states.

Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute Director Carol Hedges said the state has few options to balance its budget. She said because the Taxpayers Bill of Rights prevents tax increases without voter approval, the only other option is to cut services.

She said that despite a 19 percent increase in the state's population the past decade, including a 15 percent jump in the number of K-12 students, the state's general fund has increased by only 7 percent.

Hedges said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, is working to get an initiative on the ballot to raise money for P-20 education, which includes preschool through higher education. She said it would increase the state income tax to 5 percent from 4.63 percent and the state sales tax rate to 3 percent from 2.9 percent. She said it would raise $532 million the first year.

After Wednesday's meeting, South Routt School District Superintendent Scott Mader said he was encouraged to hear about the ballot initiative. But he said it doesn't solve the problem; it just masks the symptoms and provides a quick fix.

"It's really the system that's broken," he said. "It's our constitution, the way we fund education at the state level. Everyone's trying to fix it, but it's going to take leadership at the top to fix these things."

Stephenson said the forum was intended to provide information about what's going on in Denver. She said it was important to start discussing what residents in rural communities can do to help.

The same presentation was given to community members Wednesday night at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

"I think this is something important we need to start talking about," Stephenson said. "We have a huge problem and we need to have the conversations about how to fix it. This was a good first step."

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