EDITORIAL: School Board's Missing Assignment
Glenn Walsh | 4/2/10
The local schools have to confront a battery of state and national tests every year.  The schools are sorted, ranked and judged, often unfairly, based on these exams.

Our local schools generally score above the state and national averages on almost every standardized test, well above other districts serving a low-income population but far below the better school districts in the state. 

But the school district probably doesn’t realize that it failed a very critical, and very fair, test on Tuesday night.

I’ll call it the “Clinkenbeard” test.

During a discussion of the set of tax increases being considered by local boards at a County Commissioners forum, Jan Clinkenbeard asked school board president Linda Lattin,  “What is the school board doing to try to deal with these inequities?”

Clinkenbeard was referencing the remarkably inconsistent taxing formula which the state of Colorado has imposed on local school districts.  In theory, Colorado school taxes are imposed according to a school district’s ability to pay.  Districts with a great deal of taxable real property receive less state funding.  Those with less taxable real estate receive more state support.

I question the practical wisdom of basing a state-wide system on local property taxes, but if the system were applied with fairness, and smart, suburban districts were prevented from gerrymandering, at least the taxing and funding system would be somewhat equitable.

If the Colorado state school tax scheme were somewhat equitable, we would find that districts with roughly the same amount of assessable property would receive the same funding for basic programs, right?

Well, here is a table comparing Archuleta County with every comparable district in the state with approximately the same value of assessed property per pupil:

Not only does the Archuleta school district receive less state funding than any comparable district, it receives less than half the funds received by the next lowest-funded system.

Incredibly, Archuleta schools receive $5000 less per student than the average for the group.  There are some complicating factors here for some of the smaller schools, which match state aid with more local spending than the average school district.  Yet, none covers more than 40 percent of their school budgets, while Archuleta now covers more than 80 percent.

Let’s run a second test on the equity of the Colorado school taxing scheme.  If the system were based on per pupil assessment values, we would not expect to find districts with double, triple or quadruple the property wealth of Archuleta County receiving more state funding, right?  Well, here are the sweet sixteen:

These sixteen districts — almost ten percent of all districts in the state — have an average assessment which is $665,000 per pupil greater than Archuleta, yet they receive on average 300 percent more state funding per pupil than our schools.

Much, but not all, of this inequity is the result of the state legislature’s school property tax rate (or mill levy) freeze in 2007, which froze the mill levy in Archuleta County at the present level just as assessment increases of over 60 percent were being delivered to local taxpayers.

Local taxpayers are paying $3.5 million in added school taxes each year as a result of the mill levy freeze, an amount equal to about 9 mills, while the state is proposing to cut funding for the next three years.  Quite a something for less than nothing.

The Archuleta school district did not protest the mill levy during the legislative debates.  The district has made no formal protest, and has not, to my knowledge, threatened the state with a lawsuit.  Practically the entire San Luis Valley, far more generously supported, is suing the state.

Lattin’s response to part one of the Clinkenbeard test was:

“We have contacted our representatives, Ellen Roberts and Bruce Whitehead  We have a group called CASB that has legislative and legal representation at the state capitol that is trying to push the issues for more equalization and more fairness for us.”

“But it is fighting bureaucracy.  We are doing like everyone else.  We are writing our representatives.  I have written everyone running for governor, saying ‘What are you going to do for funding for schools and I haven’t gotten an answer back yet.’”

It is hard to give this response even partial credit.  CASB, the Colorado Association of School Boards, was one of the most relentless supporters of the mill levy freeze, because the freeze raised over $1 billion in school taxes without voter approval.  CASB has never been, and is not now, particularly concerned with how the legislation affected Archuleta County.

Clinkenbeard asks better follow-ups than any local reporter.  She pressed Lattin:  “Do you have a board-appointed committee.  You really need to be proactive on this and go out and pound on doors and desks rather than just send letters?”

Again, it is hard to give partial credit for part two.

Lattin conceded that, as yet, the local district has organized no protest of a funding scheme which, to date has cost local taxpayers over $8 million dollars and has not contributed one extra dollar to local schools:

“We have a legislative representative on our board, and there is a legislative a group of board members from all over the state of Colorado that meet.  But do we have a local board?  No.  We have one representative on our board that meets with the other representatives from the state of Colorado.”

School board member Greg Schick added:

Just a few facts on the K-12 education in the state of Colorado.  Colorado ranks 49th or 50th in the nation in the percentage of personal income that goes into education.  Colorado also ranks 43rd or 44th in the nation in the amount of money that the state spends per pupil on education.”

These are the “beside the point” talking points that the board focuses on when discussing education spending.  The board is missing the point.  Schick is right about Colorado ranking 49th in percentage of income spent on education, though Colorado’s rank is much higher — 28th — in total spending per pupil in the most comprehensive study published to date, the 2010 report of the National Education Association.

Percentage of income is one of nineteen measures that the NEA uses, and is not nearly as important as overall spending per pupil.  Almost all of Colorado’s highest performing districts — Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte, Lewis-Palmer — spend a far lower percentage of their personal income on education than the state average.  It is state policy, in fact, to limit the amount that wealthy districts can spend on education.

Despite ranking in the bottom half of states in per pupil spending, Colorado has a higher than average household income and better than average scores on nationwide tests in reading and math.  Which is to say, the relationship between education spending, educational achievement, and economic vitality is a very complicated and nuanced question to which I have only half-informed opinions.

Why Archuleta County pays more than 80 percent of its education expenses while Durango pays less than 50 percent, Bayfield pays less than 40 percent, and Ignacio pays less than 30 percent is not a complicated and nuanced question. I have an answer:  Something is basically dishonest and unconstitutional about the present school tax scheme the state of Colorado — and CASB — imposed on Archuleta County in 2007.

The critical question for our school board is not the level of total state funding.  How will it help our local taxpayers under this current scheme if state funding is increased ten or twenty percent?

How many fine dresses and fancy pairs of shoes do you have to give the wicked stepmother before she gives Cinderella a nice new outfit?

It is time for the Archuleta school board to organize a committee of board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students, plus local businessmen and at least one expert lawyer, and start to knock on doors and, if needed, pound on desks.

Why would the local business community want to join a committee to knock on doors and pound on desks in Denver?

First, Archuleta County will never create a successful and diverse local economy without a great school system.

And, second, apart from school quality, look at the regional disadvantage in which the present taxing scheme puts Archuleta County:

What investor, looking at these fundamentals, would choose Archuleta County for his facility, and for his employees and their children?

Ultimately, the Clinkenbeard test is one that this entire community has to pass if we want to enable our taxpayers to invest more money into our schools and if we want to persuade others to invest in Archuleta County.

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