Devotion to local control fosters inequity, inefficiency

Collins Enlarge photo

Collins

Local control is the sacred cow of K-12 education in Colorado. Local control is enshrined in the Colorado Constitution and is a guiding principle of our local and state boards of education. The governor likes it, and the majority of state legislators like it, too. Most Democrats like local control as much as Republicans, and short of chocolate and kittens, I canít think of much else those two groups can agree to support. But for the sake of both iconoclasm and common sense, Iíd like to propose that local control be given serious examination in a critical light, and now is the time to do it.

Simply put, the principle of local control means that nearly every town in Colorado locally controls its own school district. Every single town. Denver has a district, and so does Durango. So does Dolores. So does Silverton. Actually, you donít even need to have a town to have a school district: Even the unincorporated area of Agate, recognizable by a post office and grain elevator near some railroad tracks, has its own district with 10 students. This means that Colorado has more than 183 separate school districts plus a special district for students housed in state- run detention centers. Local control also means Colorado has 183 different school boards, 183 superintendents with 183 administrative professionals assisting them, 183 finance directors, 183 systems for evaluating teachers, 183 different ways to teach algebra Ė you get the point.

Whatís wrong with all of this local control? It is remarkably expensive, remarkably inefficient and results in incredible disparity from district to district.

Letís look at our area for examples. Durango and the surrounding area has nine districts, ranging geographically from Silverton to Pagosa Springs to Ignacio to Dove Creek. These nine separate districts pool some resources to get special services such as speech pathologists through a Board of Cooperative Services unit called San Juan BOCES. Altogether, there are about 12,000 total students in these districts. That means nine superintendents oversee 12,000 students. Assuming an average salary of around $115,000 (some make more, some less), that means local taxpayers are paying around $1,035,000 worth of salary Ė not including benefits Ė for nine superintendents. Thatís a lot of money that is not going to supplies, books and teachers.

Now, I would hate to be accused of picking on superintendents, so letís look at other areas of replication. These nine districts have nine different sets of, for instance, ninth-grade English textbooks. They have nine different human resource directors, nine different people to oversee finances. They buy everything from markers to toilet paper to computers to football helmets to health insurance nine different ways. They have nine very different salary schedules for teachers, and attrition rates reflect the disparities in pay. This is the definition of expensive inefficiency.

But the real issues arenít just expense and efficiency Ė the real issue is equitable access to public education. Students in Durango have 175 contact days with teachers. Students in Bayfield get 169. Students in Cortez get only 164.

Recently, the Montezuma-Cortez school district took part in Ė and won Ė a lawsuit challenging the system of funding Colorado schools. This lawsuit currently is headed to the Colorado Supreme Court. Teachers testified that their social studies textbooks were so outdated that, in them, George H.W. Bush (that was the first Bush) still was the president and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center still were standing.

In Durango, students have the luxury of choosing from a wide variety of Advanced Placement classes. That is not equity Ė itís de facto segregation.

So here is my proposal: First and foremost, Colorado and its residents must make a commitment to our children and the long-term economic and social well-being of our state by fully funding K-12 and higher education. This commitment must include a tax increase Ė thatís not politics; thatís just math.

Next, rethink local control by turning BOCES districts such as San Juan BOCES into consolidated school districts with one highly competent and well-compensated superintendent and administrative staff. Take advantage of large-scale purchasing for things such as supplies and health insurance. The cost savings would be significant and could be used to increase instructional days, make salary schedules more competitive and offer a greater variety of programs to students.

Finally, fund all schools in a way that puts an end to the unconscionable inequity that currently exists. This doesnít mean Durango and Cortez, or Bayfield and Pagosa, would have to abandon their rivalries on the football field and basketball court. It just means that those rivalries shouldnít translate into disparities that follow kids into their classrooms.

Elizabeth Collins teaches social studies at Durango High School. Reach her at ecollins@durango.k12.co.us.