We’ve seen the big picture now…the somber state of public education funding in Colorado, and just how it got so gloomy. Now we’ll bring it back home and see how the funding fertilizer looks in our own backyard and just how our garden grows with (or without) it.
First, the fertilizer. It got scarce in Eagle County — much the way it did for the whole state...the whole country for that matter — during the Great Recession. Whatcha gonna do, que sera sera, spilt milk, and all that jazz. Everybody was hurtin’, and Eagle County Schools just did what everyone else did and lived within their means by cutting programs and curricula, laying off teachers and freezing salaries, and deferring non-critical building maintenance. This was crisis mode after all, and our teachers, staff, and administrators pulled together to keep that garden growing, despite the lack of resources.
Matter of fact, during this short-term emergency, Eagle County’s schools have continued to deliver results. Despite losing about $40 million in funding since the Great Recession, our graduation rates for all students are higher (77.1%) than the state (73.9%), and also for Hispanic students (68% ECS, 60.1% CO) and limited english proficient learners (64.7% ECS, 52.8% CO). (Source: Colorado Department of Education)
It even looks good behind the curtain. Fiscal wonks will appreciate that, for the 2015-2016 school year, Eagle County Schools received the Meritorious Budget Award from the Association of School Business Officials International for excellence in the preparation and issuance of its school system budget (those accountants sure do know how to jazz up an award, don't they?).
And then, the national economy began to recover, with Colorado’s economy doing better than almost every other state. So from this fertile economy grew…lemons? Because local education funding in Colorado is primarily funded by the state, and because the state’s revenue increases are limited, our schools saw only modest increases in total funding, while insurance and other costs have skyrocketed, and our student population has swelled.
Watch your step! Eagle County's new Exceptional Learning Environment
Several of our schools are at capacity for the number of students they were originally built to serve. In the next few years we will see an influx of students in both our middle and high schools, mostly in Eagle & Gypsum, where, between classes, the hallways already look like the inside of a firehose. Large class sizes are one thing, in the context of educational quality, but fire code is another. Without new funds to expand Eagle Valley High School, for example, the school will have to place modular trailers outside the school for classrooms, and the cost of that will have to come from other operating areas, most likely teacher pay, which is already lower than many other districts we compete with for quality teachers.
The district already spent down its reserves by almost 40% during the recession in order to soften the abrupt speed of the economic collapse. Despite that, an internal study of the district in 2015 found that approximately 40% of teacher resignations are caused by cost of living issues. Compounding that, about 30% of teacher prospects turn down job offers due to cost of living issues versus compensation levels.
So it’s no small miracle that our teachers and school staff have managed to make lemonade out of lemons over the past eight years. We have a remarkable and dedicated team of educators who have stuck with our community and have worked hard to provide exceptional education to our students during these hard times. But we can’t expect them to struggle so hard for so long, not when so many other communities will reward them for their work and dedication.
Even within Colorado (collectively in the bottom 20% in per pupil funding for all states) Eagle County teachers can expect to make 12% more in Jefferson County, 33% more in Littleton, and 47% more in Boulder! all places with a lower cost of living to boot. (Source: Colorado Department of Education)
Of course we all make the cost of living sacrifice to be here. And maybe, like us, loads of teachers will continue to take the hit to live in paradise. Good thing we’re the only paradise around...
…or are we?...Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!
Stay tuned for our next episode, Peeking Over the Fence - A look at what our neighbors have done for themselves.