Alliance hears lively debate on school funding

Discussion of District 51’s proposed mill levy override brought cheers, grumbles and at one point spurred an audience member to yell at an override supporter during Thursday night’s meeting of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance.

The alliance invited Duke Wortman, co-chairman of override campaign group Friends of School District 51, and Phyllis Hunsinger, who served as superintendent in southwestern Montrose County, to offer the pros and cons, respectively, of the override. If it passes in the Nov. 1 election, the override would increase property taxes for local schools by about $12.5 million a year for six years.

Wortman said the money will help schools add technology and restore calendar days and teachers for about $112 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home. At the same time, Wortman said the average Mesa County homeowner can expect a $300 drop in their property taxes to be paid in 2012 because of new property valuations.

“The idea that taking $112 back on a $300 decrease is an increase is the nightmare we’re all trying to run to and it’s not a valid argument,” Wortman said.

Wortman later added that the district is at the bottom for state per student funding among Colorado’s 178 school districts. When he described that situation as making “chicken salad out of chicken” feces, a woman in the audience yelled, “How dare you” and said every teacher in the audience should be offended by the comment. That prompted Wortman to clarify he was talking about funding, not students.

Hunsinger was met with a standing ovation after giving her side of the story, closing with a comment that classroom teachers are the most important factor in student success. Hunsinger said she has spent the bulk of her life working in public education and she believes the process of funding education has to change.

“We can no longer continue to fund education at the rate to which we’ve become accustomed,” Hunsinger said. “It has nothing to do with children as the proponents say and everything to do with funding the status quo.”

Hunsinger suggested disbanding the U.S. Department of Education, closing schools, doing away with federal mandates and exploring other ways to shake up the current funding system. She said one of the biggest unfunded mandates is special education. District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz, who provided information throughout the meeting, said the district general fund pays 70 percent of its special education costs, with the federal government covering the remaining amount.

“We’re going to have to find a different way to educate kids,” Hunsinger said. “I’m not sure all avenues have been explored.”


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