Class Warfare

Good schools have always attracted parents considering a move to a new neighborhood. But suppose a developer took a more active approach--making the local schools better as a marketing tool?

Tom Hannon remembers the day he convinced his boss that happy, wealthy schools could be part of a real estate sales strategy. At the time, in 1985, Hannon was marketing director of a new, upper-end, golf-and-housing community being developed in Florida's panhandle. What if, he asked his boss, the company actually gave enough money to the local school that it became noticeably superior to surrounding schools?

"And he looked at me," Hannon recalls, "and his eyes just lit up."
Now Hannon works for Gerald Hines, the Colorado and Texas developer. A Hines company, River Valley Ranch, is building a high-priced, 685-unit golf-and-home community in the small mountain community of Carbondale, just up the valley from Aspen. Together the two men are about to make the 1,200-student Carbondale school district one of the wealthiest in Colorado.

For starters, Hines, through his Carbondale Education Foundation, has donated $100,000 to be distributed over the next four years to Carbondale's three older schools (a fourth is new), which sit across the street from Hines's development. The first check has already bought carpeting for the elementary school; computer, art and recreation supplies for the middle school; and a completely new telephone system for the high school. And over the next four to eight years, Hannon estimates, Hines and River Valley Ranch will pour an additional $400,000 into the Carbondale schools.

"Certainly, having an organization like the River Valley Ranch puts a school in an enviable position," agrees Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Jim Phillips.

But what if your daughter attends school in next-door Basalt, over the Carbondale boundary--a line Hines's generosity doesn't cross?

In Colorado, until relatively recently, it was a given that if you lived in a wealthy community, your children would enjoy generously funded, well-stocked schools. Because local property taxes made up much of a school's budget, rich communities simply had more money to pour into their classrooms. Thanks to new laws, though, these days the tax dollars are being more evenly distributed.

For the past ten years the Colorado legislature has served as an educational Robin Hood, making sure that students at, say, Harrington Elementary School, in central Denver, receive just as much public money as those who attend Greenwood Elementary, in Cherry Creek. Under the school-finance act passed in 1988 and then fine-tuned in 1992, lawmakers have shuffled money from the wealthy, property-tax rich suburbs and mountain playgrounds into poorer inner-city and rural school districts.

Over the years this Robin Hood strategy has produced a series of complex mathematical formulas that require months of rigorous study to understand. But the new laws have succeeded in their goal: In general, Denver's public schools get just as much money from property taxes and the state government, per student, as do schools in Douglas County. A recent nationwide study gave the state a B in fairness for the way it allocates money for its students.

While this has thrilled parents whose children go to school in Meeker, for example, which saw its per-pupil spending nearly double over the past several years, the new laws have not been nearly as popular in Aspen, where the school budget dropped despite rising costs and inflation. "The school finance act helped a lot of people; it helped a lot of districts," says Joe Tarbet, the district's finance director. "It didn't help Aspen."

In response, some motivated parents formed the Aspen Education Foundation. Since 1991 it has raised about $60,000 a year, thanks in part to the town's famously wealthy residents, who feel strongly that Aspen's students deserve better than average. "We think there should be flagship schools leading the way instead of everyone sinking into mediocrity," says Kristin Jensen, volunteer director of the foundation. "And part of the reason we did [lead] was because of better funding."

Aspen and Carbondale are but two examples of schools that, owing to their locations, remain richer than others in spite of the legislature's best efforts. As school districts increasingly receive only the public money necessary to cover bare-bones classroom basics, private money has played a greater role in determining which students get new computers, working band instruments, sufficient art supplies or field trips to nearby museums.

Not surprisingly, wealthier districts--or schools serving affluent communities within districts--frequently come out ahead. As a result, one side effect of the state's well-intentioned attempts at publicly funded school equity has been a new, privately funded inequity.

Every year, as part of the research she does for her self-published Magnolia Press guides to Denver-area public schools, Margerie Hicks visits most schools in the metro area. She says the differences between the schools situated in well-off neighborhoods and those surrounded by poorer areas are unmistakable. "And," she adds, "private donations usually are the difference."