While every rural public school district in Colorado continues to struggle with financial, staffing and capital improvement issues, a group in Durango, Colorado is taking a community-based approach to better school funding. The group calls itself the Durango Education Foundation, with the motto: "Funding Durango 9-R schools: It’s urgent. It’s essential."
According to the group's website, District 9-R is in a dire situation:
Rural school districts have long been respected for bringing high quality education to children in far-flung areas, and Durango School District 9-R is no exception. While balancing a wide variety of children’s needs and interests, our school district consistently prepares students well for post-secondary work and study.
But ask any teacher in the district whether he or she wants to do even better, and the answer will be an enthusiastic “Yes!” Yet that same educator will also cite inadequate funding as the primary obstacle to greater achievement.
That dedicated educator is one of many who ensure that Durango 9-R’s effectiveness radiates outside the school walls. Good schools, adequately funded, function like magnets that attract businesses and investment and launch an upward spiral of improved results. Well-educated students have a better chance giving back to our community. Our entire community benefits from Durango 9-R’s health. Happily, Durango has a long history of supporting our schools, but now that support is needed more than ever before.
The modest sociological research I've done, over the past ten years, suggests that many young families choose their town of residence based at least partly on the perceived quality of the community's schools. That same research has suggested that many Americans feel our public schools have been declining in quality over the past decade, ever since the imposition of the federal "No Child Left Behind" laws.
Durango School District 9-R is facing a grave crisis, one that threatens to invert that upward results spiral and send it tumbling. Due to the economic downturn and reduced property tax valuation, Durango 9-R is operating with $4 million less annually in state and local funding than in 2009. Durango 9-R has balanced the budget for 2014-15, making critical cuts to absorb a $1.67 million shortfall.
On a per-pupil basis, Colorado is in the bottom 10 for funding of states nationwide; and 9-R itself has less to spend on our classrooms than 145 other school districts out of 178 in Colorado. Through pragmatic funding cuts and dipping into reserves, the district has stretched its resources to keep class sizes manageable and maintain the core education programs, but if there ever was any “fluff,” it has long since been excised. Administrators have had to make critical budgeting decisions, which will affect most, and possibly all, of the students in our schools. There are only more tough choices ahead.
I imagine we are all attracted to simple solutions to complicated problems. The solution to Durango's education urgent situation, according to the 501c3 non-profit Durango Education Foundation, is pretty simplistic: "More money." And indeed, that is the stated goal of the Foundation — to raise local donations for grants and scholarships, and to influence the state legislature to funnel more money away from other state-funded programs and into K-12 education.
9-R is already running on impossibly slim rations. Our classrooms are full. Teachers regularly buy material supplies out of their own wallets. Whole classes wait in turn to use scarce computers, a logistical nightmare first, for lessons that require computer access and next, for the new state testing system, which is completely online. Updating textbooks and library materials is just a dream for many schools, as are field trips, classroom aides, even printer cartridges. And now, every element—from materials and technology to teaching and staff positions—is being scrutinized for further paring down or elimination.
It's a frightening situation, one that apparently necessitates the use of terms like "impossibly slim," "logistical nightmare," and "just a dream."
With the help of community members and a generous $50,000 matching grant, we are already halfway to our goal of raising $200,000 to fund discretionary expenses in the schools. The money we raise will go directly to the classrooms in the service of our students, not to any 9-R administrative costs; the Durango Education Foundation will take no management fees beyond the actual campaign costs.
District 9-R has still not posted their official enrollment count from October 2013 to their website (probably due to lack of funding?) but the student count for October 2012 showed 4,231 "Full Time Equivalent" students. The Amended Budget for that year showed General Fund revenues (from local taxes, state taxes and federal taxes) of about $34 million.
According to my pocket calculator, that comes to about $8,100 per full-time student. Or, viewed slightly differently, about 203,000 per classroom of 25 students. We might estimate the teacher's salary at $50,000 per year. That leaves $153,000 per classroom annually to pay for textbooks and so on.
But during 2012-2013, District 9-R actually spent about $37 million in their General Fund — $3 million more than their revenues. We might wonder whether the $200,000 goal of the Durango Education Foundation is high enough, to accommodate a district that overspends its revenues by $3 million in a single year? The simple solution seems less simple, when the actual dollar amounts are taken into account.
Luckily for the people of Colorado, there are alternative solutions to healing our education "nightmare." And not all of them demand that we extract more — or redirect more — tax dollars into our public schools. In fact, some of the solutions are surprisingly cost-effective. These other solutions don't necessarily demand "more money". They demand something perhaps more difficult to come by. They demand that we have open minds.
They demand that we change our assumptions about education.
Read Part Two...