Continuing his commitment to increasing funding for education in rural areas, Elizabeth School District Superintendent Douglas Bissonette testified before the Colorado Senate Finance Committee at the Capitol on April 11.
The bill, which has bipartisan sponsorship from state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling; Senate Minority Leader Lucía Guzmán, D-Denver; Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan; and House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, was passed by the committee with a vote of 4-1. Sen. Tim Neville, R-Jefferson County, voted against it.
Bissonette spoke in favor of bill SB 17-267, Rural Sustainability, which would ultimately allocate monies to schools, roads and hospitals in Colorado’s rural areas. If the bill passes the Senate and the House, it would supply $400 million toward improving rural education in Colorado over the next three years.
He said that one of the biggest problems facing rural education is low salaries for teachers in the rural districts.
Testifying at the nearly three-hour hearing with a prepared statement, he said: “Seventy-four percent of rural schools have average teacher salaries in the lowest 10 percent of the state.”
“They are paid 56 cents on the dollar of teachers in the top 10 percent,” he added. “They make on average 21 percent below the cost of living in their communities, contrasted with the top 10 percent who earn 28 percent above the cost of living in their districts.”
Bissonette went on to say: “There are over 80,000 students receiving their education in these 110 (rural) schools where teachers, on average, are earning 21 percent below the cost of living in their communities, and there are over 5,200 teachers teaching these 80,000 students.”
The five-member committee heard testimony from groups representing transportation, healthcare, hospitals and schools, including the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance and the Colorado Association of School Executives. University of Colorado President Bruce Benson also testified.
Three amendments to Colorado’s constitution, TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), Gallagher, and Amendment 23 have created something of a perfect storm for challenges to funding education in rural districts.
According to the website greateducation.org, “With the passage of TABOR in 1992, a combination of budget formulas made it increasingly difficult to fund schools: TABOR’s revenue limits automatically cut mill rates in districts across Colorado at the same time TABOR limited the state’s ability to prop up school funding with state dollars.”
“The challenge is to work with those amendments while maintaining the good in them,” Bissonette said.
Having passed the Finance Committee, the bill went to the Appropriations Committee on April 13. “It was expected to go the Senate and then the House,” Bissonette said.
With less than a month remaining in the legislative session that ends May 10, things must move quickly if the bill is to pass the Senate and the House by that deadline.
“If it doesn’t, the bill dies,” Bissonette said. If that happens, the superintendent will continue with “collective and intense persistence, working with legislators to find solutions.”