Schools and Prisons, Part One
Bill Hudson | 6/14/11
The subject of the conference was, as I understand it, “Courthouse and Courtroom Security.”  About 170 Colorado County sheriffs and deputies had gathered at the Pagosa Lodge last Thursday, June 9, to share information and ideas (to which, for whatever reason, the media was not invited to be privy.)

Security is, of course, near and dear to the hearts of many here in Archuleta County; over the six years I’ve been writing for the Daily Post, we’ve seen two prison escape events at the Archuleta County Detention Center (more affectionately known as the County Jail.)  The most recent escape resulted in serious physical injuries to one of the jail guards, and ultimately to the shooting death of one of the two escapees.

(For photos of the conference, check out Cynda Green’s Photo Essay in yesterday’s Daily Post.)

Before the sheriffs could get down to discussing security, however, they had the pleasure to welcome Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who was on a whirlwind tour of Colorado, visiting 18 different communities in the space of six days — and, in most of them, attending community gatherings where he signed into law new legislation passed during the 2011 legislative session.  In all, Hickenlooper autographed 19 new laws during his tour of the state.

But his business in Pagosa Springs was not about signing legislation, but rather a chance to welcome 170 County Sheriffs of Colorado members to their annual summer conference.

Following a standing ovation, the governor delivered his speech.
john hickenlooper pagosa springs sheriffs conference
Governor John Hickenlooper, making the connection between school funding and a burgeoning prison population.
Curiously, the speech had very little to do with the subject of the conference, “Courthouse and Courtroom Security.”  Instead, the governor focused mainly a subject that was surely foremost on his own mind, considering that he would be signing SB 230 into law later in the day Thursday, at a community gathering in Salida.

“The decisions that I have to make are sometimes difficult, and sometimes unpopular — and I know that’s what you guys have to deal with, day in and day out.  Often times, you’re dealing with situations where there’s not always an obvious solution.

”Anyway, I saw you guys are working on courthouse safety this time.  And you look at those issues, and the stress that people are going through sometimes when they are going through civil proceedings or criminal proceedings.  Or divorces, sometimes, when we get into the most bitter of relationships.  People get outside of whom they normally would be, and they often times act in crazy ways..”

He then managed to somehow segue to a joke about the infamous Hinsdale County cannibal, Albert Packer (after whom, he claimed, the dining hall at the University of Colorado Boulder is named.)

“Allegedly, the judge said, before sentencing Packer, ‘There were only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you done ate five of them.’”

As the laughter in the room died down, the governor got into the meat of his speech.

“One of the key things we’re going to have to address, in regards to the state ledger, are obviously very difficult budget situations, not just in Colorado but all over the country.  I think we’ve got another couple of years of difficult times ahead of us.

“What I recognize you [sheriffs] deal with all the time is the failure of our institutions — in particular, our public education system.

“You know, almost 20 percent of our kids drop out — if you look at the whole canvas of our public school system, almost 20 percent of the kids drop out.  And about 50 percent of the people in prison are dropouts.

”So the connection there is dramatic.  If you look at the kids who drop out, turn to drugs and get involved in violent crime, and you look over the arch of their lives, we taxpayers are spending — they are now estimating — close to $2 million per person, on those kids that we don’t .. for whatever reason, and it’s not always our fault .. but for whatever reason, we don’t keep them in school, we don’t connect .. they don’t believe they have a future.

“We are spending over $30,000 a year on a inmate in our prisons now.  In 20 years, we’ve gone — in the Corrections budget; we just pulled this information out last week — we’ve gone from $135 million to $645 million.  That works out to 8.2 percent growth every year.”

Interesting statistics, no doubt. It also works out to 478 percent growth in the Corrections budget over 20 years.  During those same 20 years, of course, Colorado saw some population growth: we had about 3.3 million residents in 1990; the 2010 Census count reckoned 5.0 million.  But that’s only about a 51 percent growth rate.

Our Corrections budget, since 1990, has been growing at over 9 times the rate of the state’s population.

Does that really have any connection to our public schools?  The governor is proposing that our schools are, in some way, failing certain students, who then end up in the state’s prisons.  

Last February Hickenlooper had proposed a $332 million cut to the state’s public education budget, but legislators whittled the cut down to $225 million through Senate Bill 230, the bill that parcels out state funding to each school district.   
And the situation could change on June 20, when legislators get an updated forecast of state finances. If the news is “good”, the cuts will be pared to $160 million.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, had cooperated with House Democrats to reduce the cuts.  Hickenlooper signed SB 230 on Thursday in Salida, which is in Massey’s district.

Hickenlooper and his staff rewrote the budget early this year with more pessimistic assumptions than his predecessor, Democrat Bill Ritter. By keeping more money in savings and ordering larger cuts up front, Hickenlooper said he was trying to avoid the continual budget cuts that Ritter and the Legislature have had to make several times a year since the recession began.

So far this year, state revenues have been slightly better than economists predicted, in contrast to 2009 and 2010, when the experts frequently understated the effects of the recession in Colorado.

But despite the Legislature’s moves to reduce the cuts, SB 230 marks the low point of three consecutive years of cuts to schools.

Voters in 2000 mandated increased funding for public schools through Amendment 23 — written in better times by state Treasurer Cary Kennedy (before she was treasurer) as a response to TABOR, the infamous Taxpayers Bill of Rights. Amendment 23 required funding for K-12 to increase every year by the rate of inflation plus 1 percentage point. The 1 percent kicker expires in 2011 — but the inflation clause goes on indefinitely.

But when the recession hit, Ritter sought a new interpretation of Amendment 23 from his legal staff that allowed the Colorado legislature to cut the school budget.

With the signing of SB 230, Colorado schools now are $776 million below where they had expected to be under the “old” interpretation of Amendment 23.  Ritter had hoped that the cuts would be temporary, but SB 230 adopts his scheme as a permanent part of the law for next year and beyond.

To date, no education groups have sued the state to challenge the new legal interpretation of Amendment 23.

Before signing SB 320 in Salida on Thursday, Hickenlooper said, "It has been a very tough year for every component of the budget, but especially for education."  (According to an article by Ericka Kastner in the Salida Mountain Mail.)

So I wonder.  Is there really a connection between education funding and our prison populations?

The numbers seem to say otherwise.

Read Part Two...

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