DENVER School leaders from across the state descended on the Capitol on Thursday to plead for a stay of execution as legislators get ready to vote on a historic budget cut for schools.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed a $332 million cut to schools from last years level of state support. Its $836 million less than schools should get under a voter-approved mandate for school funding, but the Legislature started cutting the school budget two years ago.
With lawmakers preparing to adopt the biggest cut yet in the next few weeks, Senate Democrats called Thursdays hearing to build political support for schools.
Districts are cutting band, sports programs, librarians and field trips, and many school leaders predicted teacher layoffs.
One Eastern Plains district recently laid off its entire staff, with plans to rehire some of them to re-create the elementary school.
Ive never seen so many tears in school board meetings in the last year or so in all the years Ive been on the board of education, said Lyndon Burnett, president of the Agate Board of Education, a shrinking district that has just 27 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Its hard to keep your head up and keep going forward when these cuts keep going.
Big districts are suffering as much as small ones.
John Youngquist, principal of East High School in Denver, said the cut will mean three fewer teachers at his school next year.
Im charged to lead ever-increasing growth for our students with ever-decreasing resources, Youngquist said.
Even the privileged Cherry Creek School District in suburban Denver will have to cut around 300 jobs, including teachers, if Hickenloopers plan passes the Legislature, said Superintendent Mary Chesley.
Margie Adams, chairwoman of the board of Great Education Colorado, said legislators defeated a proposed tax increase for schools last year, and political leaders discouraged her group from seeking a citizens initiative tax hike this year because Hickenlooper does not support it.
We couldnt do it last year, Adams said. Were told not to do it this year. And in the meantime ... we lose another generation. This should not be a political issue. It should be about the future of the state.
There is no happy ending in sight.
The Senate was supposed to vote on the state budget next week, but thats on hold because the Joint Budget Committee, which is split between three Democrats and three Republicans, has not been able to agree on a budget.
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, suggested saving money through changes to employee pension plans. Several witnesses said schools should be freed from the dozens of mandates the Legislature has placed on them.
Former State Sen. Norma Anderson, who sponsored the bill that created the Colorado Student Assessment Program standardized tests, said the state should ditch the tests, which costs millions of dollars to administer.
Get rid of em. I carried the bill, but get rid of em, Anderson said.
Good economic news last week will not be enough to save schools, said Natalie Mullis, the Legislatures chief economist.
Mullis had one bit of bright news: The state government will probably finish this budget year in the black, with an extra $170 million or so left over. That money could be used next school year to push off some cuts for one more year.
But Republicans are pushing to restore grants to local governments from gas and oil taxes, as well as fees the state pays merchants to collect sales taxes. The state has raided both pots of money the past few years to keep the budget balanced, and Hickenlooper wants to do it again next year.
Reach Joe Hanel at firstname.lastname@example.org.