World-class education still goal despite budget cuts

Steve Shultz

Business and educational leaders worked for more than a year on plans to help Mesa County School District 51 offer what they touted could become a world- class education.

The effort spurred an initiative to recruit 500 volunteers to help tutor elementary school students an hour a week. At the same time, School District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz proposed more instructional time as one way to help local students better compete in a global marketplace.

The need for volunteers could escalate in coming months as the number of hours of formal instructional time is shortened in the upcoming school year.

As part of a budget cut of more than $13 million for 2011-12, the district plans to shorten the school calendar by three days and anticipates laying off the equivalent of 185 full-time employees.

The District 51 Board of Education is considering placing a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to override a mill levy freeze imposed by the Colorado Legislature. If the measure is placed on the ballot and approved, the district would receive additional revenue from property taxes that could be used to reinstate teaching positions as well as lengthen the school year.

“Our students would benefit greatly from more instruction time,” said Schultz, adding that students in some countries attend classes 40 to 60 more days a year than do U.S. students.

“They’re looking for jobs and competing in a global economy,” Schultz said. “I think it’s important to look at the school calendar.”

Trimming three days will save the school district $1.8 million, according to Melissa Callahan deVita, executive director of support services. The district will still offer more than the minimum number of days required by state law, she said.

The Grand Junction Forum, a committee of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, was formed in 2007 to initially examine ways to improve an already bustling local economy. As the Great Recession took hold locally in early 2009, the committee focused on improving education to improve job skills and landed on efforts to help the district offer a world-class education.

Since public announcement of the effort nearly a year ago, the Grand Junction Forum has handed the initiative over to the Business-Education Foundation, a long-time cooperative effort between the chamber of commerce and school district.

The Grand Junction Forum fell short of its goal to recruit 500 volunteers, but the Business-Education Foundation continues to seek people to tutor in elementary schools.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, didn’t return telephone calls from the Business Times by press deadline to comment on the initiative.

Schultz said the foundation plans to meet in August and possibly announce a next step in its efforts. Meanwhile, the school district continues to strive to provide a good education.

“We’re a standards-based state,” he said, alluding to Colorado measurements that include student assessment program scores and average yearly progress scores for schools. “What it demands is every student succeed.”

Standards are higher than they were 30 or 40 years ago, while schools in past years weren’t expected to pay close attention to every student, he said.

But the district isn’t satisfied with providing anything less than a world-class education, Schultz said. “We can’t afford not to. I’m afraid some traction could be lost over time. We can’t stop and wait.”