Colo. educators decry Hickenlooper's proposed cuts
By Karen Auge and Carlos Illescas
The Denver Post
Slashing $375 million from Colorado's public schools, as Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed, could cost teachers' jobs and shrink the paychecks of many who remain, and would mean nearly $500 less spent on each schoolchild.
Deep cuts to education were widely expected. Nevertheless, the actual numbers delivered by Hickenlooper Tuesday hit educators like a gut punch.
They responded with expected outcry, while the governor's budget proposal generated a topsy-turvy political response, with some in the governor's party decrying the bloodletting and asking for additional revenue – i.e. taxes – to stanch it.
"Gov. Hickenlooper's budget is full of tough choices," said Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell Policy Center. "What's different now is that these cuts truly threaten bedrock investments in our future."
Overall, Colorado's public colleges and universities will see $125 million less next year. Of that, $89 million was an expected loss of federal stimulus money.
That leaves total expected cuts of $36 million for 2011-12. This year, the state higher-education budget was $555 million. The proposed cut will mean $877 less per student.
The potential cuts to K-12 education come despite Amendment 23, which is supposed to increase education funding each year by at least the rate of inflation.
But as the current recession began engulfing the state in 2009, then-Gov. Bill Ritter seemingly found a way around that requirement.
In 2003, legislative attorneys opined that Amendment 23 did not protect mitigating funding factors - such as a district's cost of living and its number of at-risk kids – and lawmakers could lower the total money for schools without touching each district's base amount.
How the cuts affect students, teachers and schools will vary, said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.
"Public education is supposed to be for all kids regardless of circumstances," he said. "For those kids who come from difficult circumstances, like poverty, public schools are often their only hope."
Jefferson County schools had expected to have 95 fewer teachers next year. But Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the state's largest district underestimated how much it would lose under Hickenlooper's plan. Now the district may ask employees to take a pay cut, likely through furlough days.
This year's proposed cuts come on top of two years of financial blows to schools.
Kindergarten through high school education took a $260 million cut – a 6 percent net reduction - in the current 2010-11 budget year, which ends in June.
The cuts are becoming more than schools and teachers can or should bear, said Brenda Smith, president of the AFT Colorado teachers union. "Teachers are doing their part with fewer resources in larger classes, but at some point Coloradans will have to decide if education is really our priority."
With everyone from the governor himself to the state's 440,000 unemployed residents talking about the need to create jobs, it makes no sense to yank money out of the institutions that prepare the state's future workforce, Caughey said.
"I don't think there is any better investment in jobs than schools," he said.
Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or firstname.lastname@example.org