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Colorado State Capitol

Colorado State Capitol

Denver Post

Colorado school district mergers could happen without voters’ OK

Colorado’s 178 school districts include some with fewer than 50 students, some that don’t serve all grades, and some that have struggled academically and financially for years. Yet it’s been nearly two decades since a school district dissolved and merged with a neighbor.

A bill that passed the state Senate Wednesday lays out a new process for consolidation that doesn’t require voter approval. The bill would not force any districts to merge, but state Sen. Kevin Priola, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes it makes it easier for district officials to have conversations about consolidation.

Priola, a Henderson Republican, said the bill isn’t aimed at any specific district.

“Just from my business perspective, sometimes companies merge, and when the companies merge, they’re both stronger for it,” Priola said. “So I’ve just tried to lend some of what happens in the private sector.”

Senate Bill 183 would allow districts to voluntarily dissolve if they meet one or more of three conditions:

  • The state Board of Education has removed the district’s accreditation or ordered it to reorganize;  
  • The district doesn’t provide a full 12-grade program;
  • The district has less than 50 students.

Loss of accreditation is the ultimate penalty that the State Board of Education can impose on a school district under Colorado’s accountability system. Districts may also lose accreditation if their financial problems are too severe. However, it’s never happened.

Current law allows the State Board of Education to order a district with long-standing performance problems to merge with a better-performing neighbor, but doing so is complicated.

The school district reorganization law dates to 1992 and requires voter approval. It hasn’t been used in 19 years. The last school district consolidation was in Yuma County in 2000.

“Under the current statute, the bar is so high that it’s just basically impossible,” Priola said.

The State Board of Education hasn’t taken a position on the bill, but board member Jane Goff sees good reasons to change the law.

“Avoiding the necessity for a vote is an interesting aspect of it,” she said.

In November, the Board of Education ordered Adams 14 to find an outside manager to operate its schools because of years of low achievement. The board stopped short of trying to dissolve the district and left some authority with local leaders. A divided school board selected the neighboring district of Mapleton to serve in the external manager role. Last week, the board asked Adams 14 and Mapleton to do more work on a plan for the two districts to work together.

“There are a lot of things that have the potential to help them out,” said Goff, who represents the region that includes Adams 14. “This might be one.”

But a spokesman for Adams 14, asked about the bill, said the district “has no particular interest” in an actual merger.

The city of Commerce City, where Adams 14 is located, is listed as monitoring the bill in state lobbying records. The district has 7,060 students in 13 schools.

“One of City Council’s goals is to promote resident health, safety, and education,” said a statement on behalf of the city. “Commerce City is actively tracking this bill as a result of its potential impact on the quality of the public education received by children in our community.”

The Colorado Association of School Boards isn’t supporting or opposing the bill, said lobbyist Matt Cook.

“We like the fact that it’s certainly not mandatory,” Cook said. “Obviously the way the statute is currently written, it’s almost impossible to reorganize school districts.”

The bill would require public hearings on a planned consolidation with oversight from the education commissioner. If one of the districts owed money on bonds, voters there might be asked to approve taxes to continue to pay off the bonds.

“It is emphasized fairly well in the bill the importance of having the community involved in those conversations,” Goff said. “That’s one of the things that’s been important in Adams 14 as of late.”

Current law followed several decades of consolidations that took Colorado from roughly 1,000 school districts to the 178 that it has now.

Cook noted that technically, the Colorado Constitution allows the General Assembly to redraw the state’s school districts.

“Obviously, politically that’s very hard to do,” he said. “But they do have that power.”