Class Warfare

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In Denver, administrators have made a head-to-head comparison only once. Last November, in response to a parent's complaint that Slavens Elementary, on well-off South Clayton Street, had nicer facilities and equipment than Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver, the district whipped out its calculators and rustled up a report.

Thanks largely to federal grants and additional public money Valdez collected for "at-risk" students, Denver's bureaucrats found the opposite of what the parent charged: The inner-city Valdez actually spent about 50 percent more per pupil than did Slavens. "This board has made equity a priority," insists Frye.

Other studies have reached far different conclusions. In a doctoral dissertation written three years ago, Genevieve Garcia, now an elementary-school principal in Monument, analyzed privately raised money received by schools in different neighborhoods in El Paso County's District 12.

In one example, she contrasted the money raised in two elementary schools (she says she collected data with the understanding that the schools would remain anonymous) by selling class pictures. The first school earned $2,783; across the district, a similarly sized elementary school collected $452. The first school also nabbed more than $33,000 in grants from the local parent-teacher organization; the second, $4,000. "There was a huge difference," she recalls. "Basically, the rich got richer."

Dean Damon recognizes the phenomenon. Now the director of the Colorado School Finance Project, which promotes further state education funding reforms, Damon served as superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District from 1989 to 1996. Several years before he quit, he recalls canceling a popular school fundraiser in which families redeemed their Safeway and King Soopers receipts for a percentage of the total.

Although the project raised a lot of money for individual schools, Damon says he had to drop it. "The larger and more aggressive public schools in higher-income areas generated a lot more money and spent it on a lot more computers for their school," he recalls.

Debbie Lynch, who runs the ten-year-old Aurora Education Foundation, sees the same pattern during similar fund drives with Cub Foods. "There's a lot of difference between a grocery receipt in one part of our district versus another part," she says.

In general, she adds, the Aurora School District can be split into an affluent south and a less-well-to-do north. "We have a couple of elementary schools with PTAs that raise $40,000 off various sales--Vassar or Dartmouth--and others--Kenton, Fulton, Montview--that can hardly muster a parents' organization, much less raise any money," Lynch says.

Jefferson County, whose boundaries include both wealthy suburban communities and inner-city neighborhoods, has a similar split. The south and west parts of the county boast sparkling new schools (Evergreen, Conifer and Dakota Ridge high schools all opened last fall) crammed with modern equipment.

Visit Bradford Elementary, which sits near Lockheed Martin and serves the upper-class Ken Caryl Ranch community, and, says Lyons, "we've got kids on the Internet, traveling to science centers around the world." Or stop by Westridge Elementary, near Chatfield Reservoir. Lyons says that school recently cut a deal with IBM to place a hundred new computers in the school and give each student his own ID number. In exchange, IBM, like MCI in Colorado Springs, gets to use the school as a living sales floor, bringing clients in to watch the students learn.

"And then there's Lumberg Elementary," Lyons adds. "It's an older school, so for starters it couldn't even be wired for such a computer network." The students at the Edgewater school work on ten-year-old Apple computers. "They're just trying to keep their heads above water," she says.

As director of the Jefferson Foundation, Mona Sandoval-Wittmus notices the disparity between rich and poor schools when she reviews grant requests from teachers around District R-1. This year, well-off Bellmar Elementary applied for a grant to use laser discs as a tool for preparing multi-media presentations. Chatfield High School requested a networked and integrated software package that included laptop computers.

Lakewood's Westgate Elementary, meanwhile, simply wanted a few more computers.

"I see that a lot," she says. "Some of the border, inner-city schools are applying to us for just the basics. And the wealthier ones have all the extras."

If there are funding differences from school to school, the gaps in the amount of private money collected between districts can be even more conspicuous. That's what University of Colorado professor Paul Baumann found when he studied "educational entrepreneurship" in several Denver-area districts.

In an article he submitted this past summer to the Journal of Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Baumann compared the amount of money raised by "a suburban school district" west of Denver and an "urban school district." While conceding that some figures were incomplete--particularly from the urban district--Baumann concluded that, outside of direct taxpayer revenue, the suburban district raised $171 per student. The urban district: less than $3 per student.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer