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Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

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A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

One requires elementary schools that receive low-quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”

 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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Colorado

Almost All aboard – Colorado takes a big step towards front range rail

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Three Southern Colorado historic passenger train stations – in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs – have not been used for their intended purpose in decades, and it could take at least another decade or longer, if at all, before another passenger boards a train at any of them.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who is also chairman of the state’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, says his commission has received the $8.7 million in funding it had requested last December from the state General Assembly as part of Senate Bill 1, a transportation bill, on May 9 – the last day of the 2018 legislative session. Pace says the funding will be used by his commission to start the first phase of a five-phase plan to bring south-north passenger rail service between Trinidad and Fort Collins in the next 10 to 12 years.

Pace says although he hopes that the existing historic train depots along the route (in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs) are used for the project, the other members of the passenger rail commission, and a study to be done in regard to station locations – among other things – as part of the first phase, might suggest otherwise. The first phase should be completed about 2½ years from now.

Pace explains that the existing three train stations, two of which were built well over a century ago, were located in downtown areas and were designed to accommodate pedestrians. He says the train stops for the Front Range Passenger Rail have to account for the fact the many of the potential passengers will get to the station by car. He adds things like track alignment and rights of way are among the variables that will determine whether the historic passenger train depots are used.

In addition to determining train station locations, the first phase of the Front Range Passenger Rail project includes defining mobility needs, preferred alignment and routes, service operating characteristics, including time of service, speeds, and rail spacing. Phase I also will include public and stakeholder hearings.

A governing authority will be formed during the second phase to be implemented by November 2020. That phase is expected to cost $500,000. Phase III includes full environmental clearance from the federal government, which is expected to cost between $150 million to $300 million. Construction will start as part of the fourth stage with a cost to be determined. Phase V includes ribbon cutting and a grand opening to commence ridership.

The Alamosa to Pueblo train waits in Walsenburg as newsboys pick up the daily run of paper. (Denver Public Library – Western History Collection.

Walsenburg

The city of Walsenburg owns the town’s former passenger train depot located in the city’s downtown between Main and Russell streets. Walsenburg City Clerk Wanda Britt says, in its heyday, 11 passenger trains passed through the depot daily. Sometime after passenger train service stopped, the depot had been home to the now defunct Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce. Then, Britt says, the building was refurbished by the city, keeping the depot’s old façade, and the city now rents it out to Huerfano County government as office space and a tourist center.

Walsenburg town historian Carolyn Newman says the depot was built  in 1926 by two competing passenger railroad companies serving Walsenburg at the time – the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and the Colorado and Southern. Although she can’t say when passenger service ended, Newman says when she relocated to Walsenburg from England in 1957, she did so aboard a passenger train. A Nov. 4, 2010 report on the World Journal website, which serves Huerfano, Las Animas and Colfax counties, says the last passenger train left Union Depot in 1966. Newman adds that Walsenburg has two sets of tracks running through the town, which were mostly used to transport coal mined in Las Animas and Huerfano counties. The tracks go east and west through town but one later curves to go north and south, she says.

Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher says the city has been in the talking stages with the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission through its participation in the South Central Council of Governments (SCCOG) out of Trinidad, but nothing more. Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico serves on the Passenger Rail Commission and represents SCCOG. Incidentally, Trinidad has a functioning modern passenger train depot served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Eccher says Walsenburg’s Union Depot can easily be repurposed back to a passenger train stop, saying the building would have enough space – even its old ticket booth is intact. The mayor says one obstacle that might be an issue is that the parallel tracks that run through the city are owned by two different railroads – Union Pacific and BNSF. Although the mayor says he would welcome a passenger train stop in Walsenburg, he is skeptical because another passenger train route through the city going west and east from La Junta proposed by Amtrak has not materialized.

Pueblo Union Depot (Denver Public Library – Western History Collection)

Pueblo

Built in 1889, the Pueblo Union Depot at 132 W. B St. is now owned by the Koncilja family, who seems proud of the 130-year-old facility.

“We believe the Pueblo Union Depot is the crown gem of the Union Avenue Historic District,” Joseph Koncilja says. “Our ownership of this historic property is more that of stewardship than ownership. Almost every family in the city of Pueblo has a connection with the Pueblo Union Depot either with their immigrant families arriving there at the turn of the century or through fond memories of leaving for military service during the World War I and World War II, and even Vietnam.”

Koncilja also relates the depot’s unique history. The depot came about, he says, as a result of a compromise between five feuding railroads involved in “contentious competition.” At one point a decade before the depot was built, Koncilja continues, during the Royal Gorge Railroad War, Old West legend Bat Masterson, to settle things down, took over a roundhouse near the depot site using a cannon that he took from the Pueblo armory. Masterson and other gunfighters, among them Doc Holliday, were hired in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which was competing against the Denver and Rio Grande. The dispute ended, without a shot fired, on June 10, 1879, when a federal court ruled in favor of Denver and Rio Grande.

Getting back to after the Union Depot was built: “Over 40 trains a day passed through the depot in its heyday,” Koncilja says. “We estimate conservatively that over 50 million people passed through the depot until the end of passenger service in 1974.”

Koncilja says the depot is now used “primarily as a mixed-use development consisting of event catering, office space and luxury apartments on the third floor.” He calls it an anchor for the Union Avenue District and says it is also close to the Southeastern Colorado Heritage Center and Museum, which has one of the largest collections of historic artifacts in the city.

Koncilja seems optimistic about repurposing the old depot as a passenger train station. And Commissioner Pace says he has spoken with the Konciljas informally about possibly using the depot as part of the Front Range Passenger Rail project.

“We hope that the Depot will be able to participate in the return of passenger service in conjunction with Amtrak’s expansion from La Junta to Pueblo,” Koncilja says, “And later be incorporated into the Front Range rail corridor from Fort Collins to Trinidad. Other than track upgrades and some necessary switches, the depot is capable of servicing passenger cars at present.”

Santa Fe Depot in Colorado Springs (Denver Public Library – Western History Collection)

Colorado Springs

A passenger train made its last stop at the Colorado Springs’ Old Depot on April 30, 1971, says Spencer Kellogg, a volunteer with the Colorado Train Museum in Denver. The station was owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

The Ochs family is credited with saving the Old Train Depot at 10 S. Sierra Madre St. (behind the Antlers Hilton Hotel and right under the bridge at Colorado Ave.) from demolition in the 1970s, according to a Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article published on Oct. 19, 2011. The Gazette story was about the closing of Giuseppe’s Old Depot Restaurant after 38 years as a tenant at the depot. The article states that the site of the depot has been home to a train depot since the Colorado Springs founder William Jackson Palmer laid the tracks in 1872, with the current structure opening in 1887. The article further states that the city of Colorado Springs had wanted to buy the depot to use as a transit station, but that never came to be.

The El Paso County assessor’s office currently lists the depot’s owner as ODP LLC, which is a company formed by the Ochs family.  

Stauffer and Sons Construction was another former tenant at the Old Depot Square, which consists of the historic depot and a south building that was added sometime after the last passenger train stopped there and the building was turned into a shopping center.

Ron Stauffer posted a promotional article on the Stauffer & Sons’ website on April 4, 2014, which says that the current depot has plenty of free parking, which is unheard of in downtown Colorado Springs.

“The building we share has quite a history,” Stauffer’s story states, “it … brought many visitors to Colorado Springs from places like Utah and New Mexico (including President Harry Truman, who stopped here in 1948 for a whistle-stop tour during his election campaign!).”

Pulp was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the Ochs family by phone and email in regard to what the Old Depot Square is being used for now and what accommodations, if any, need to be made to the depot to welcome passenger trains again.   

What’s Next

Bringing life to existing passenger train depots should be a welcome sight for Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, with each city desperately seeking ways to revitalize their downtowns. That is why the stewards of these historic train stations might have their fingers crossed in the hope that the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission will find a way to bring back these structures to their glory days as passenger train terminals.

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Colorado

Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

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