Opinion: New year, new district
Free Press Opinion Columnist
January 2015, welcome to a brand new year!
In a sense, it’s a mental “reset” button. We reflect on the past and project a way forward that includes addressing a combination of difficult and easy tasks that we think will yield benefits.
For individuals, it may be weight loss or increasing exercise or stopping smoking or saving more money. Organizations also have annual and long-term goals for improvement. Your school district has several such goals, guided by an over-arching necessity: becoming a 21st century district that prepares students for success in the “Information Age.”
A brief overview of our goals reveals several layers that naturally cascade from broad ideas down into specific, measurable strategies and tactics. They become too numerous and tedious for a column, but in simplified terms, here’s a quick overview: Goal 1. Increase student learning; Goal 2. Create shared responsibility for learning; Goal 3. Recruit and retain the best possible teachers; Goal 4. Improve organizational efficiency; and Goal 5. Improve communications. Examples of more specific tools include school performance frameworks, unified improvement plans, staff and principal evaluations, district accountability committees, and financial oversight committees.
Another broad set of goals overlays these and focus on what is required to become a 21st century district. These goals involve updating facilities, curriculum, instruction, and technology. The average age of our facilities is 43 years old. That puts them around the time man first landed on the moon. The Colorado Academic Standards help modernize our curriculum and incorporate International standards. Instructional methodologies are evolving as we learn more about how students learn, plus how we adapt to both curriculum and technology. Technology is becoming more foundational and fully integrated with the learning process. Even subtle things like the school-year calendar, start times, and classroom ergonomics are being adjusted to support student learning.
Beyond these types of goals and plans for improvement are foundational elements like school financing. The School Finance Act of 1994 defines the funding formula for all schools. Amendment 23 to the state constitution intended to protect school funding from recessions, but didn’t. The Gallagher Amendment established higher tax rates for commercial property than residential property. And, The Tax Payer Bill of Rights limits overall funding from taxation. In a word, it’s a mess. To get around Amendment 23, state legislators added the “negative factor,” which subtracts $22 million from our school funding each year. The net effect of these legal realities is that the state of Colorado is in the bottom tier of states in the nation on educational investment.
When it comes to funding, the school district is often — and incorrectly — thrown in with other state and federal entities and painted as an inefficient wasteland. In reality, we are extremely efficient. The rumor is we’re “top heavy,” yet general and central administration only accounts for about 3 percent of our budget. Businesses of our size would likely spend more than twice this on communications alone. Charitable nonprofits average 37 percent allocated to administration.
A real glimpse at our operational efficiency and 21st century vision is available through our energy use. Through our partnership with the Mesa County Community Solar Garden, the district is now deriving 25 percent of its energy needs with solar offset. Of all large school districts in the state, District 51 is the second most energy-efficient district. The Solar Garden converted unused district property into improved property that now generates solar energy for the community and rental income for the property, both of which offset our energy costs. This power source will reduce 2,841 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. It is equivalent to 6,607 fewer barrels of oil per year, 592 fewer passenger vehicles or the electricity needed for 425 homes. For parents, students, and staff members, every dollar saved in operations is one more for our core mission.
Just like members of the community, the school district is changing every year. For 2015 and beyond, we are focused on improving the learning experience for students by modernizing our facilities, curriculum, instruction, and technology. Like most improvement plans, it won’t happen all at once and will require a great deal of support from the community.
District 51 is your school district, and we’re transforming to deliver 21st century skills the community expects and students need. Your support in our journey is essential and appreciated. Here’s to a positive new year.
Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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