Opinion: Mesa County school budget to see increase | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Mesa County school budget to see increase

Dan Dougherty
Free Press Opinion Columnist

The Colorado State Legislature has finalized the K-12 education budget for the 2015-16 school year. Mesa County Valley School District 51 will receive an increase of about $5 million over last year. We are grateful for this increase from the state, as it will help us pursue our transformation into a 21st century school district. Our transformation does not necessarily require additional funding. In many cases, we are doing things differently than in the past and can simply reallocate funds from the old way to the new way. However, two issues do have an impact on our budget: state mandates and the integration of technology throughout the learning experience. Our rate of transformation is limited in speed to the availability of financial resources necessary to act on our initiatives.

Five million dollars is a lot of money, but for the 12th largest school district in the state, it’s only 2.8 percent of our operating budget. On a per-student-basis, School District 51 also has one of the lowest total budgets in the state for districts our size and larger. Most of our increase in budget will be invested in our employees, who have endured years of pay cuts and freezes. Simply put, research confirms that the best way to improve student learning is by having the best educator leading their instruction. Just like in business, recruiting and retaining staff members are driven by competitive compensation, organizational culture and community amenities. About half of our staff members are not teachers, but essential supporters of our educational mission. We apply the same principles to these staff members, too. We recruit and retain excellence in all positions in support of our students and parent expectations.

As part of our transformation, we committed to changing the standard pay structure in public education from steps-and-lanes to performance-based compensation. This is an important, nuanced change. Historically, educators were paid based on level of education and years of experience. If a staff member remained in their position, then they were eligible for an increase. If a staff member added a higher degree, then they were paid more. Performance had very little to do with compensation. Moving forward, School District 51 is adding comprehensive evaluation systems for staff and connecting performance with compensation increases. This takes SB-191, the “educator effectiveness” bill and re-engineers the compensation model to pay the best teachers a little more. Like business models, this incentivizes excellence. In doing so, it supports our belief that excellent teachers create excellent students.

In School District 51, the local teacher’s union supports this effort. They understand that we already have excellent teachers and teachers on the cusp of excellence. Another reason the local union supports the change is because it includes directed professional development. If the idea is to have the best possible teachers, and state law requires an evaluation system to rate teachers, then let’s support these teachers with professional development so everyone can improve. The good become great. The great become even better. It’s a game-changing transformation.

School District 51 is expecting a grant to help fund the initial costs associated with making the change in an organization our size. And, circling back to this year’s budget, the school board approved a small pay increase to help our compensation schedule be competitive enough to attract and retain educators. Top businesses routinely aim to pay at the highest level of pay ranges to achieve the goal of recruiting and retaining the best. We are far from being able to pay at the top of the teacher range. We have to, however, pay competitively enough to meet our needs and parent expectations.

To that end, parents and the community need to understand the impact of the “negative factor.” For the 2015-16 school year, School District 51 will have $21 million withheld from funding prescribed by Amendment 23. Voter enacted, Amendment 23 sought to catch Colorado investment in education up to national averages and protect it from being targeted for cuts during recessions. During the recession, state legislators invented the negative factor, which is a line in the School Funding Act of 1994 that subtracts funds from districts. Since 2008, over two billion dollars have been subtracted from school funding. For 2015-16, it will cost the students of District 51 $21 million. To adjust to this loss, your district cut $30 million from its budget during the early stages of the recession. No further cuts are necessary, but students are still shorted the services. As we strive to transform, this funding would help us address the two issues with the largest impact on our budget: state mandates and technology integration.

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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