Discussion about future spending of half-cent sales tax for education draws a big crowd | SteamboatToday.com

Discussion about future spending of half-cent sales tax for education draws a big crowd

Scott Franz

A teacher speaks Monday night during a well-attended joint meeting of the Steamboat Springs School Board and the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board. The boards discussed the worth of small class sizes and the future of the city's half-cent sales tax for education.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Dean Massey is a science teacher at Soroco High School.

Much of Monday night’s meeting between the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board and the Steamboat Springs School Board centered around a multimillion dollar question: What is the most effective way to spend an anticipated $15 million in sales tax revenue over the next six years to improve student achievement?

Both boards learned quickly that it will take much more than one meeting to arrive at an answer.

Monday's meeting attracted a large audience to the Steamboat Springs Community Center, and the attendees were eager to discuss the future of the half-cent sales tax, which isn't scheduled to sunset until 2019.

Beth Wilhelm, who has a daughter in a Steamboat classroom with 23 other students, was adamant the money should continue to be used to decrease class sizes.

"This needs to be one of the focuses," she said before she called the current teacher-to-student ratio in the district outrageous. "We need to take care of this right now."

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A majority of audience members at the meeting were elementary school teachers or parents of elementary school children in the Steamboat Springs School District. And many of them agreed with Wilhelm.

But some in the room had a different opinion on the spending of the tax revenue.

Citing research that shows class size doesn’t have a significant impact on student achievement, Fund Board member and Soroco High School science teacher Dean Massey said the most effective use of the money is to attract and retain effective teachers.

"A narrow focus on just the small class sizes, particularly from the Fund Board, I don’t think is the best path for us," Massey said.

And there were more ideas.

Others on the Fund Board and in the audience pondered whether more money should be spent on such things as professional development for teachers, after-school enrichment programs and curriculum development.

"I think we should explore a few more variables other than just small class size," Fund Board member Roger Good said.

Monday’s meeting between the two boards was the first in many years. It came after the Steamboat Springs School District reached a new milestone this year with its funding requests to the Fund Board, the group responsible for allocating millions of dollars in grants each year to Routt County’s three public school districts.

A large portion of the tax money historically has been dedicated to paying the salaries of teachers who help the Steamboat school district maintain an average student-to-teacher ratio that currently sit at 20-to-1 at the elementary level and 25-to-1 at the secondary level.

Since the half-cent sales tax revenue first became available in 1994, the Steamboat district has spent between $108,000 and $986,000 every year to support small class sizes.

It has spent between $446,000 and $1.3 million a year on technology needs, and between $90,000 and $3 million on capital needs.

For the first time in the tax revenue’s nearly 20-year history, this year’s request from the Steamboat district to spend $1.3 million to support 22 full-time employees and maintain small class sizes surpassed the price tag of all other grant requests, including technology.

Fund Board President Kristi Brown said the magnitude of the grant request for teachers spurred many questions from her fellow board members, with some questioning whether that was the most effective use of the money.

"It was a good time to sit down and clarify what small class size really means, what it looks like and how does it translate to student achievement," she said. "And I think those were questions answered very well tonight. I don’t expect that anybody is not going to want to fund teachers and small class sizes, I just think it was a meeting intended to clarify what small class size is all about, and what we are trying to accomplish with a small class size policy."

The Fund Board is preparing to spend the next few months evaluating $2.7 million worth of total grant requests from the three local school districts.

Monday’s meeting kicked off with a presentation from Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks. He presented years worth of enrollment and class size data for the district along with research that showed a quality teacher is more important to student achievement that the number of students in a class.

"The challenge is taking what the research says and what the community needs are and balancing that with the resources we have available," he said.

Steamboat School Board President Brian Kelly billed the meeting as a first step in helping his district prioritize its budget for future school years along with its grant requests to the Fund Board.

The board is in the early stages of a community engagement project that will have community members take a survey asking them to prioritize programs in the school district’s budget.

Asked if the meeting provided any clarity on the future spending of the tax money and the district's own budget, Kelly shook his head.

"This is the first step in a long process," he said.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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