The most significant asset for our future needs our investment

It is time to stop using tired reasons for not supporting District 51’s bond and mill levy override ballot questions. Some people tell me they will not vote for the tax issues because District 51 is top-heavy with administration, or that it wastes money, or that it does not provide kids with a good education. Here are the facts:

Despite being the 12th largest school district in the State, District 51 is in the bottom 15 percent of Colorado school districts when it comes to administrative costs, spending only 1 percent of its annual revenue on central administration.

In 2010 and 2011, when more than $30 million in budget cuts were needed, the district asked a committee of community citizens to develop recommendations about what and where to cut. As a result of the committee’s work, all cuts were made as far away from kids in the classroom as possible. Every position and service that was not absolutely necessary to the well-being of students was eliminated. Today, there is no fat to cut. Any new cuts will impact the classroom, things like reducing the number of teachers and increasing class size. Taxpayer money is not wasted. We literally cannot afford to waste any resource.

Our kids get a good education, especially considering the variety of needs our schools manage. Forty-three percent of students in our community live below the poverty line and qualify for free and reduced lunch. These children come to school each day hungry and, often times, unsupported. Teachers not only teach. They also take care of a traumatized population of students.

District 51’s 44 schools average 43 years in age. The capital budget for all maintenance and repairs is not enough to replace the aging HVAC system at Palisade High School. There is no money after the 2011 cuts to update curriculum or to adequately invest in computers and technology. Yet District 51 adopted a competency-based, personalized learning system two years ago in spite of inadequate funding. Seat time in school no longer leads to advancement through grade levels. Today, under our new learning model, a student must be competent in a subject each step of the way before he /she can move on. This is a systemic change. It will take time to fully implement, but District 51 is “all in” on the change because it is the right way to teach kids. Any reader who has doubts about the dedication and strength of our teaching staff should contact me and we can tour the school of their choice to see first-hand the education our kids receive every day.

A friend of mine told me that she would support a tax increase for District 51 only when our students’ test scores are at the same levels as the last two school districts her family lived in, Littleton and Boulder. Both school districts out-perform District 51 on standardized assessment tests. The difference comes down to demographics and local funding. Littleton, with 15 percent of its students living below the poverty line, provides local tax money to its schools equal to $2,005 per student per year. Boulder Valley School District has 25 percent of its kids at the poverty level and provides local tax money of approximately $2,891 per student per year. Mesa County provides $423 in local tax funding per student per year and that has not increased since 2004. Clearly, local investment in schools matters. Over time, it produces results. And there is no new money coming from the state. It is up to us locally.

I understand there is a lack of trust in the school district due to some past decisions regarding employees. Mistakes in judgment have been made. Those days are over. Working with our new superintendent, Dr. Ken Hapstonstall, I am convinced that trust and accountability are at the top of his agenda. His message to staff is that his administration will be accountable to teachers and schools, but he expects accountability back. More importantly, he insists that all of us at District 51 be accountable to the good citizens of Mesa County and spend the money entrusted to us wisely

To conclude as I started, it is time for this community and its voters to stop using the same old excuses for not investing in the most significant asset for our future — a strong K-12 school system. The Grand Valley has schools to be proud of, but which can be substantially improved with sound local investment. The current ballot proposals are not for fluff — they will provide needed repairs, technology, books and other curriculum materials, and a new, fresh middle school to replace the decaying Orchard Mesa Middle School. Please join me in a sound investment in the future of our community and vote yes on 3A and 3B.

John Williams, a lawyer, is an elected member of the Mesa County Valley District 51 Board of Education.


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