Education funding, energy development go hand in hand
By Marcia Neal
There are numerous financial discussions going on at the state level this year, primarily dwelling on school finance, or the lack thereof, and methods that might be used to deal with this problem.
Calls for more, new and different sources of funding abound. With the settlement of the Lobato lawsuit over school finance pending, and the various legislative plans for increased funding, we will almost certainly see legislation calling for changing and increasing funding for Colorado schools this session.
While we might disagree with methods and amounts, it is a fact that Colorado’s innovative Senate Bill 191, with the charge of changing teacher and principal evaluation methods in order to identify and reward successful educators, almost necessitates increased, but targeted, financial resources.
Colorado’s current dismal economic picture almost guarantees that such efforts will not be successful.
There is, however, another conversation going on, one that we fail to see as a critically related conversation. I speak of the ongoing disagreements between environmental groups and the energy industry.
It is obvious to everyone that there is a concerted and determined objective to close off Colorado lands to nearly all further energy developments, both sustaining and newly proposed.
Last year the BLM closed the Roan Plateau and the Vermillion Basin to further development. We now face a similar effort over Thompson Divide, approximately three times larger than earlier closures.
These closures, along with the effort of the Oil and Gas Commission to tighten regulations, are predictive of even stronger efforts. The arguments, as always, circle around clean air and water, leaving the impression that the energy developments, energy companies and their employees don’t share concern for these natural resources.
I grew up in Colorado. I remember slag heaps, sump ponds, dredging debris and clear cut forests.
We don’t do that anymore, and haven’t for 50 years or more. Driving from Rifle to Parachute, we pass drill rigs and a small enclosure with solar panels recording output.
There are many, many similar examples of responsible energy development. The fact that you don’t notice them speaks to the issue.
Frequently the very people who are protesting energy development are also involved in education funding efforts. Yet we never seem to notice the incongruities.
This year’s funding efforts will almost surely fail. As we learned last year, Colorado voters, who are usually strongly supportive of education funding, will not approve — probably overwhelmingly will not approve — any new tax plans. Our current stale economy just precludes efforts to provide additional income. This is not politically driven. It’s a true case of voting with your pocketbook.
We must recognize that the energy activity is vital to our economic climate. Western Colorado has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state. Proposed alternatives, such as tourism, fall far short of replacing high paying energy jobs. Alternative energy is being used at every opportunity but will never meet the energy nor the employment needs.
Greater economic activity naturally provides the increased income needed for a vibrant economy, which in turn, produces tax revenue. In addition the energy industry provides other income, sometimes directly to schools, in the form of severance tax funds and Secure Rural Schools and School Trust land income.
Energy companies are also routinely strong community supporters and partners in hundreds of ways. They tend to be especially strong in the education field. The fully equipped and staffed science classroom in the new elementary school in Meeker, along with the science training provided to their teachers, being just one example.
If we really want to see more dollars flowing to our classrooms, if we are committed to educating western Colorado students to the best of our ability, we need to move past the “never the twain shall meet” mentality and realize we can and must co-exist if Colorado is to maintain the vibrancy and quality of life to which we have become accustomed.
Marcia Neal is a former school teacher in School District 51 in Mesa County, and a former school board member. She currently serves as vice chairman the Colorado State Board of Education, representing Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.