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Dispatch from the funding front lines: Cortez

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Results are in from the Nov. 1st election and one fact regarding the education related issues on the ballots seems pretty clear from the final tally: The voters of Colorado who took the time to cast ballots were not in the mood for change.

Whether it was changing local board membership to alter current dynamics in major districts or to increase taxes to fund education, the voters responded that now was not the time. From my perspective, this was a mixed bag. I am happy about some results, surprised by some others, and really disappointed about a few.

One issue that both disappointed and surprised me, but received no press outside of its corner of the state, was the bond question put to the voters in Cortez. The people of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school district were asked to approve a $3.4 million bond designated to construct a new building for the Southwest Open School (SWOS) as a match for a $7.4 million grant awarded to the school through the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program.

Like the vast majority of local bond and mill overrides on the ballots, the SWOS bond was defeated 2,322 to 1,812, or 63 percent to 37 percent. At first blush, this appears to be just another bond question that went down in flames yesterday. But the story of SWOS, its struggles for a new building, and the disappointing but also surprising result of this decision is deserves examination.

SWOS has existed for 25 years, and has been a charter school for the last 10. The school has served the most at-risk youth in the Cortez community over the course of that time. As a designated alternative education campus (AEC), SWOS is the last – and many times, only – stop for many high school kids on the verge of dropping out of school or reentering school to earn their high school diploma.

These are the kids who are facing a tremendous number of challenges and that many schools hope to avoid having on their rolls, yet they find success and a home at SWOS.

But, unfortunately, that home is in dire need of repair. The SWOS campus consists of prefab buildings that date to 1973, and significant problems have been identified in nearly all of the school’s structures, including concerns about wiring, mold, outdated heating systems, splitting floors and ceilings, a lack of space and general safety issues. The condition of the school was bad enough to warrant its selection as a finalist for a BEST grant, but with a significant matching requirement that presented a new and unfamiliar challenge: Mounting an election campaign to achieve that match.

SWOS engaged in a strong and tireless campaign to win the hearts, minds and votes of the electorate. This campaign was funded in large part through the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Legal Advocacy Fund. The fund is designed to provide assistance for charter school applicants that do not have the financial resources to move forward on a specific issue without support. The SWOS initiative to win its bond election was an ideal project to receive the League’s support, and we are very pleased to have funded the campaign.

While the SWOS question did not pass, the effort and final result does offer some important lessons learned. First, this was a bond question to benefit an individual school presented to the entire Montezuma-Cortez electorate, and the fact that it was able to garner over 1,800 yes votes in a district traditionally opposed to bond and mill questions is an impressive feat. This is a school with kids and families lacking the political capital that typically leads to yes votes, yet many hundreds of people without a stake in the school voted yes. It shows that the will to assist worthy schools through local funds exists, albeit in a year when the mood to raise taxes was virtually non-existent.

Second, the turnout in the district for an off-year election was outstanding. Participation was around 54 percent, which is 257 percent higher than the 21 percent turnout in 2009. It is impossible to determine how much of the increase is attributable to the SWOS question, but it had to be factor in the turnout.

And considering that this question showed better results than quite a few other whole district tax questions on the ballot this year – and received a higher positive percentage than the statewide Proposition 103 question – tells me that people are willing to support their local schools when the problem is framed well, the cause is worthy, and incentives exist that increase the impact of the local dollar.

Still, SWOS lost its election, and with it, its BEST grant. I anticipate that they will reapply for a BEST grant for a 2012 award, which they should get along with a waiver to reduce their match amount since local dollars are obviously lacking. I

t does mean at least one more year serving at-risk kids in substandard buildings. But SWOS should be proud of its extraordinary effort over the course of this last year to go through the BEST process, win an award, and mount a difficult election campaign – all with the kids they serve in mind. I know that I am.

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