Sen. Schwartz talks education in Aspen
December 12, 2007
ASPEN ” The Colorado Assembly is taking strides to make sure school buildings around the state are in compliance with certain safety standards, and that all districts get the funding they need to do the job of educating the state’s children, said Colorado Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) this week.
Some of the Legislature’s efforts might not be designed specifically to provide help to Aspen schools, but both Schwartz and a local educator said that any attempt to raise the quality of education throughout the state will benefit the Aspen district.
Schwartz is serving her first term in the Legislature, after achieving a significant upset in 2006 by defeating long-time incumbent Republican Lew Entz of Hooper, an agricultural community in the San Luis Valley.
On Monday, she met with members of the Aspen School Board, and planned to take part in a fundraising event Tuesday for the Aspen Education Foundation. At the school board meeting, Schwartz cited several education-related bills she sponsored in the recent legislative session and talked about her plans for next year’s session.
One of her successes, she said, was the passage of an “online education bill” that is to provide $500,000 in funding to districts that can’t afford to offer Internet-based classes. Part of that bill, she said, sets up 10 grants, at $5,000 each, for everything from consultants to help districts figure out what they need, to the purchase of new equipment.
“In that way, we can help level the playing field” for districts that might not have the resources that Aspen and other wealthier districts have, Schwartz said.
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One of Schwartz’s disappointments, she said, was the failure of a bill to make it easier for high school students to take college-level classes for credit while they are still in high school. It was called the “dual credit” bill, she said, and, she promised, “it will be back.”
A major success, she said, was the passage of SB 41, which she explained is the first step in ensuring that even the smallest and poorest districts, such as the Centennial School District in the San Luis Valley, have state support to upgrade their school facilities.
The bill calls for an audit of the poorest and smallest districts in the state, to determine where the need is greatest for improvement or even replacement of facilities, and for subsequent funding for those that lack the budgets to repair and replace old, worn-out buildings and facilities.
The first, she said, will be the Centennial, which has been handed a $5 million state grant to fix a building that Schwartz said is in such bad shape, it is making people sick to work and study there. The state’s grant is being matched by $7 million from the district, she said.
Schwartz said much of the money needed to meet the SB 41 program will come from the State Lands Trust Fund, which currently holds about $495 million in investments, which is augmented each year by $17 million in rental income and $46 million in lease fees and royalties to energy companies. The fund generated more than $24 million in interest income last year, and Schwartz said the improvements are likely to be paid for with bonds backed by the interest income and the rental receipts.
As for the coming year, Schwartz said the plan is to introduce legislation to increase the scope of the state’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services districts, or BOCES [pronounced bo-sees]. The districts, which typically encompass numerous combined school districts, provide personnel and services, such as speech therapy, teacher training and other programs, that the school districts themselves cannot afford.
“My concept is to expand the role of the BOCES,” Schwartz said, to provide services in such areas as transportation, technology education and bookkeeping in order to free up local funds for instruction. She said the programmatic expansion of the BOCES mission could help Aspen as much as other districts around the Western Slope.
While many of the state’s educational initiatives are aimed at meeting the needs of various smaller, poorer districts than Aspen, Superintendent Diana Sirko said Tuesday that she considers Schwartz to be a strong ally in Denver.
“I feel like Gail has been a great champion for education and for meeting the needs of the kids,” said Sirko. She said the broader programs Schwartz is supporting, such as “equitable financing for school districts,” help to raise the educational environment statewide and thus improve things for all school districts.