With the annual school finance act expected to be introduced in the state Senate this week -- and lawmakers looking at Gov. Jared Polis' top legislative priority, free full-day kindergarten -- rural schools are concerned that one-time-only money that they say has made a big difference over the last two years may have come to an end.
And some lawmakers are warning the situation for rural schools could get worse if the full-day kindergarten bill becomes law.
The funding boosts started in 2017, with the omnibus bill setting up an enterprise for the state's hospital provider fee. Tucked into that bill -- known as Sustainability of Rural Colorado -- was $30 million for rural schools, one-time-only money that could be used for equipment, like school buses or computers, teacher training and recruitment and replacing aging heating and cooling systems.
That, in turn, freed up general fund money that comes through the School Finance Act and that could be used to bolster teacher salaries and other longer-term needs, according to the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.
In 2018, the school finance act tacked on another $30 million in one-time-only funding for rural schools, defined by the Colorado Department of Education as districts with fewer than 6,500 (for large rural) and 1,000 (for small rural).
Of the state's 178 school districts, 108 meet the criteria for small rural; another 39 qualify as large rural. Collectively, those districts enroll almost 133,000 students.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, 104 of the state's 178 school districts are now on four-day school weeks, which is done primarily to save money. According to a CDE chart, the number of districts on a four-day week have been steadily growing for the past 20 years, and jumped more than 50 percent, from 66 in 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, to 104 in 2018-19.
Twenty-six districts moved to four-day weeks in just the last three years, including Brighton, the largest to make that change.
And 96 small rural school districts, out of 104 districts total, are now on four-day weeks, mostly along Colorado's Eastern Plains and in south-central Colorado, including the San Luis Valley, long regarded as the home to the state's poorest counties.
With the General Assembly expected to sign off on $175 million in funding for free full-day kindergarten, the state's largest school districts will be the biggest beneficiaries, according to the Rural Schools Alliance. Rural schools will suffer without a targeted increase, according to an analysis provided by the alliance to Colorado Politics.
The alliance is making the case for another $30 million boost to rural schools in the 2019-20 school finance act. It says that without that boost, the extra money for full-day kindergarten and extra funding tied to enrollment and inflation will mean very little for the state's smallest, and often poorest, districts.
Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango is the sponsor of House Bill 1262, which would institute full funding for all-day kindergarten. She also will be the prime House sponsor of the School Finance Act.
Every school in her legislative district would receive less per student than larger school districts in the way the funding is currently planned in 2019-20, including the Ridgway district, which will actually lose $81 per student, for a total of $26,588, based on 2018 enrollment.
The same is true for her prime co-sponsor on the kindergarten bill, Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, whose House district includes the Buena Vista school district, which will lose $25 per student, for a total of about $24,000 less than in 2018-19.
The Senate sponsor of the full-day kindergarten bill, Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, has two small rural school districts within his boundaries, and both are slated to receive substantially less per student than the large school districts in his area, such as Cherry Creek and Littleton Public Schools.
According to the Rural Schools Alliance analysis, the Academy 20 district in Colorado Springs could see an increase in funding at 7.09 percent. The Hanover district, which is also in El Paso County but is a small rural district, would get a bump of less than 1 percent.
The story is repeated all over the state: Large districts will, on average, receive an increase of 5.93 percent; rural districts, without continued targeted rural funding, will see 2.41 percent; 39 of the 147 rural districts will see funding increases of less than one percent. Fourteen rural districts will actually see funding cuts without the targeted boost, the aAlliance analysis claims.
Michelle Murphy of the Rural Schools Alliance says the smaller school districts do support full-day kindergarten, as most already provide it at their own expense.
But that $30 million targeted boost remains, at least for now, pie in the sky. Neither Gov. John Hickenlooper, in his Nov. 1, 2018 budget request, nor his successor, Gov. Jared Polis, asked for additional funds for rural schools. Neither did the Colorado Department of Education, according to Joint Budget Committee documents.
And to their detriment, the Rural Schools Alliance may have waited too long to ask, telling Colorado Politics that until recently they didn't know where the $30 million would come from.
When the legislature's Joint Budget Committee held its first-ever public hearing on the budget last Feb. 4, not one person advocated for the $30 million boost in a hearing packed with public education advocates who sought money for full-day kindergarten.
House Bill 1262 -- to provide funding for full-day kindergarten -- was being reviewed by the House Education Committee Tuesday afternoon.
The State Board of Education supports both the concept and the bill itself, said Steve Durham, who represents the Colorado Springs-based 5th Congressional District 5 on the board.
Durham acknowledged that some school districts will benefit disproportionately from funding for full-day kindergarten. "We believe as a group that this is a better investment than others that could be made in education," Durham said. "Getting kids off to right start pays dividends in the long run." But he also warned that there will be another recession and budget cuts will go with it.
Republican Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton noted that the funding for full-day kindergarten will become part of base funding for education. The state should be able to afford the extra expense for the next year or two, he said, but he asked what happens when the next inevitable recession hits?
He warned that it could mean that lawmakers will have to increase the budget stabilization factor, which he said disproportionately hurts rural schools, which educate the most at-risk students.
"I'm not saying full-day kindergarten isn’t valuable," Larson said. "But before we make that decision, we need to fully explore the eventualities."
Wilson countered that the hit would only be about 3 percent and that districts should be able to manage that.