Community engagement was the overarching theme during this year's annual "Breakfast with Legislators" held Nov. 16 at the Student Achievement Resource Center (SARC) and sponsored by the Cherry Creek Community Legislative Network.
Parents, community members and representatives gathered at the ISF to hear from three state representatives and one state senator. Together, the legislators represent a wide swath of different sections of Cherry Creek School District's 108 square miles. Reps. Jovan Melton (D), Mike Weissman (D) and Cole Wist (R) joined Sen. Nancy Todd (D) to tackle a wide range of questions regarding education in Colorado, including funding, assessments and retirement funding for school district employees.
CCLN co-president Ilana Spiegel kicked off the session with a simple mission statement.
"Today is all about our community," Spiegel said. "It's an opportunity to dialogue."
The panelists followed Spiegel's welcome with brief introductions that included information about their professional experiences before taking office and listed some of their priorities in legislating. Todd, a former teacher, spoke about her commitment to education in general and the Cherry Creek School District specifically. Melton spoke of his experience as a middle-school student in CCSD and later working in Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien's office before stressing his commitment to creating an even playing field for all students. Weissman spoke briefly of his upbringing on the East Coast and summed up his commitment to community involvement and grounded, sensible leadership. Wist spoke of the importance of a thorough, uniform approach to funding education in the state and briefly highlighted his plan to improve the state's budget.
"There's no silver bullet to solve these (budget) problems. We need to go to voters … and community engagement is essential."
-- CO State Sen. Nancy Todd
The introductions were followed by a series of three-minute windows for each panelist to answer moderator questions regarding funding for every student in Colorado, the state's PERA retirement plan and the School Finance Act, as well audience questions about statewide assessments, the efficacy of Senate Bill 1091 which mandates guidelines regarding teacher accountability and assessment, the status of students of color in the state education system and equalization versus equity.
The four legislators came to a general consensus regarding the fact that schools in the state are consistently underfunded. They differed in their approaches to solving the problem. Sen. Todd explained there's a struggle when it comes to granting individual districts the proper authority and autonomy, and added that any solution to the state's budget woes when it comes to education will have to have a genesis in the community. "There's no silver bullet to solve these problems," she said, adding that CCSD has dealt with budget challenges well thanks to wise management from its leaders. "We need to go to voters … and community engagement is essential."
Milton laid the blame for many of the state's budget challenges on the TABOR amendment. "I believe it's suffocating us," he said. "If we can get rid of or modify TABOR, we can start to see equity and fairness." Weissman spoke of the challenges that are also inherent in other pieces of Colorado legislation and the so-called negative factor. Wist said that a good part of the problem came from a lack of proper prioritizing in budget planning. "Our state is not doing a good job prioritizing," Wist said. "We need to go to a zero state budget. I want government to be held accountable and look critically at the state budget process."
The question of testing, which came up at last year's event, drew a variety of viewpoints, with the legislators concurring that assessments need to be meaningful and applicable for students as well as teachers and parents. Todd admitted that despite important progress, "I still think we're overtesting our kids." Milton spoke of the consequences of too much testing, stating that "overtesting turns our kids into numbers." Despite this trend, Weissman said he believes the state is moving in the right direction in finding a good balance, and Wist spoke of the importance of finding assessments that are valuable and meaningful for every student, including those who may choose career or tech education or military service instead of college.
The meeting wrapped up with a discussion of whether students of color in Colorado are being served as well as their white peers. Todd spoke of persistent opportunity gaps across the state: "We still have a gap, we need to address that." Milton spoke of his own experiences as a student in the Denver Public Schools system and the importance of including more students of color in AP classes and other challenging, rigorous programs: "There is still a fundamental problem in our schools," he said. Weissman spoke of the perils of implicit bias in the public school system, citing disparities in expulsion and suspension rates. Wist, meanwhile, spoke of the unfairness of a different quality of education in different sectors of the state. "That's wrong … There has to be accountability, and an effort to engage and educate parents."
The Cherry Creek Community Legislative Network is a non-partisan committee promoting awareness of education issues, legislation and the legislative process. It will hold a meeting on Jan. 18 to preview the 2018 legislative session, then host the annual Cherry Creek Schools Day at the Capitol on Feb. 27. For more information, click here.