The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a booming state, public schools grapple with asbestos, leaks and four-day weeks

Students play dodgeball in at Manzanola Elementary School in Manzanola, Colo. The ceiling flakes asbestos, and a lengthy crack mars the wall. Public school districts across the state are dealing with similar problems because of its funding formula and the repeated defeat of local bond and property tax proposals. (Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post)

MANZANOLA, Colo. — Asbestos floats down from the gym ceiling at Manzanola Elementary. Gaping cracks crisscross cinder-block walls. The drinking fountains need filters because of high levels of uranium and radium in the water.

Superintendent Tom Wilke’s repair list goes on. Just a short walk away, in the town’s junior-senior high school, he points out the art room where sewage backs up during heavy rain. Almost half of the 95-year-old building’s classrooms regularly have no heat, he notes. And then there’s the auditorium.

“This ceiling could cave in tomorrow,” said Wilke, an energetic presence who has led the 151-student district for four years, while also serving as the elementary school principal, high school principal, maintenance director and assessment coordinator. “It’s one thing after another, and it’s never ending.”

But the challenges facing this rural district on Colorado’s arid southeastern plains aren’t so unique. Across the increasingly affluent state, which boasts powerful job growth and one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the country, public K-12 systems are in deep trouble.

Collectively, officials say, Colorado’s 178 school districts have more than $14 billion in infrastructure needs. Spending per student is well below the national average of approximately $12,500 — even below of Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico, which in 2017 posted the nation’s highest poverty rates. Budget shortfalls have stalled teacher pay and forced more than half of all districts to put one or more schools on a four-day week, the largest proportion in the country.

Several dozen superintendents work multiple jobs, and the burnout rate is high: Wilke is leaving Manzanola, and his dream job, on June 30.

“Colorado remains among the least well-funded systems in the nation,” said Bruce Baker, a school finance expert and professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. “They’ve got the ability to spend more. They just don’t.”

The issues here parallel those in numerous states — from West Virginia to California — that have been in the national spotlight recently because of teacher strikes for higher salaries, smaller class sizes and increased education spending. Colorado ranks last for wage competitiveness, and Denver just saw its first teachers’ strike in 25 years, with hundreds walking out for three days following a protracted impasse with Denver Public Schools administrators over the district’s pay system.

“I am a single mom. I have three kids,” teacher Rebecca Ryan said at a school board meeting on Jan. 24. “They are getting fed from a food bank because my salary doesn’t cover my student loans, my living expenses, and I now can’t afford groceries.”

Some of the pressures can be traced to the Great Recession, when Colorado, like many states, slashed K-12 funding. The effects lingered. In nearly half of states, combined K-12 state and local per-student funding from 2008-2016 remained below 2008 levels when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (In Florida and Arizona, funding remained about 23 percent lower.)

Over the past several years, however, Colorado’s economy has rebounded and boomed. It ranks third for job growth in the United States, federal labor statistics show, with its unemployment rate among the lowest of any state. Oil and gas production set record highs.

Tax-adverse voters have not responded. They have repeatedly rejected attempts to raise levies to prop up underfunded school districts, including $1.6 billion statewide initiative in 2018 that would have helped districts cover escalating operating expenses.

“At the end of the day, people wonder, ‘How can you have such a hot economy and not be able to fund your schools?’ ” said Dave Young, the state treasurer who taught middle school math, science and technology for 24 years.

The state provided about $4.7 billion of the $12.3 billion spent on public K-12 schools in 2017-2018 — with local revenue comprising about $5.8 billion and money from the federal government and other sources for the remainder. Most lawmakers and educators agree that Colorado’s school finance formula is woefully inadequate. A constitutional amendment prevents the General Assembly from raising taxes to help districts offset the significant costs of new statewide academic standards, evaluation systems and accountability requirements. Instead, it must seek approval from the electorate.

At the local level, a provision known as the Gallagher amendment limits property tax revenue. This forces districts to repeatedly ask voters to increase property-tax rates to cover additional operational costs or to pay down debt on bonds to build new schools.

Students and parents, many from lower-income communities, tried several years ago to seek more resources through litigation. But the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the public-school financing system, taking away a strategy that has been used elsewhere, such as in Kansas, where the state’s highest court has twice ordered lawmakers to allocate more money to districts.

“There’s no real solution in sight at the local level for the Manzanolas of the world,” Gov. Jared Polis (D) said in a recent interview. “That’s why districts like Manzanola and others really need state leadership in a state funding solution.”

Polis, who took office in January, tapped former state treasurer Cary Kennedy as a senior adviser for fiscal policy and his point person to lay the groundwork for a successful ballot measure by 2020. Polis also has asked the legislature to allocate $227 million for full-day kindergarten — the state funds a half day — which he says will free up $100 million for districts to spend on other needs.

The governor, who served six years on the Colorado State Board of Education and founded several public charter schools for at-risk youth, said he is committed to addressing the “fiscal thicket” of constitutional restrictions that have hamstrung education funding for decades. He plans to work with the state treasurer to “free up additional funds,” such as marijuana tax revenue, for building new schools in high-poverty districts.

Polis is appealing to a tough crowd. In 2018, for the third time in 13 years, an effort to rewrite the state’s finance formula to reduce inequities among urban, suburban and rural school systems failed.

“We really have a system of haves and have-nots, and the spectrum is widening at each end,” warned Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in the southwest corner of Colorado Springs.

Lawmakers are aware of this gap: A key committee is considering a Robin Hood-type bill that would attempt to address the funding chasm between wealthier and poorer districts. But the proposal, introduced in late February, may not have enough support to advance.

“It’s important to at least have the discussion to see if there’s a path forward politically,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno (D).

While troubling disparities between rich and poor districts exist in virtually every state, the gap here is especially stark. In the affluent ski community of Telluride, student performances take place in a state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot theater constructed through a public-private partnership. In the tiny town of Blanca, in south-central Colorado, the school district spends nearly a third of its $940,663 budget on utilities because its lone 63-year-old school has so little insulation and its outdated heating and cooling systems run on propane.

Superintendents say outdated curriculums, technology and infrastructure in districts unable to pass measures to increase property taxes can impede student performance on statewide assessments.

“When you’re using materials that are a decade or more old, that’s a challenge,” said Superintendent Chris Fiedler, whose district, 27J Schools, sits on Denver’s northern edge in the suburb of Brighton. Voters there have rejected 10 of 15 requests since 2000 to raise property taxes for operational costs or to fund debt on bond measures to build new schools. Until this year, some textbooks still in use were so outdated that they did not stretch beyond the Clinton presidency.

The district, whose student population has doubled to nearly 18,000 over the past decade, ranks near the bottom for total per-student funding in the metropolitan area. Given its less-than-competitive base salary, it switched to a four-day week this school year to attract teachers. Its state funding shortfall since 2009 exceeds $144 million.

“I call that Colorado’s broken promise to their kids,” Fiedler said, as he thumbed through a stack of spreadsheets showing how poorly the district has fared compared to its peers in a dizzying kaleidoscope of funding measures. “It’s really depressing.”

When local measures fail, districts have few alternatives. Aging facilities are patched rather than repaired or replaced. And administrators like Manzanola’s Wilke pray that the auditorium ceiling holds.

Voters in the fading agricultural outpost turned down bond proposals in 2017 and again last year. The losses left Wilke emotionally exhausted and frustrated. His students — most of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch — deserve more, he says.

The measure defeated in 2018 asked voters to approve raising property taxes by $2 million. The money would have been added to a major grant from the state to renovate the town’s junior-senior high school and acquire adjacent land for a new gym and an elementary school addition.

Resident Jeanne Smith volunteered to visit every home to discuss the details. She said her neighbors want what’s best for their kids. But some don’t have heat or water. Some have holes in their roofs and floors. In the end, they could not stomach a tax increase — even one that might have cost only $10 more a month.

“Many people here are disabled or retired and on a fixed income,” said Smith, who also lives on a tight budget. “They are making the decision: Do we eat the cat food, or let the cat eat the cat food?”

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