Concerned about the future of Colorado Springs' largest school district, no fewer than three separate citizens' groups have sprung up to delve into the problems facing the district.
At issue is the status of cash-strapped District 11, which is in the midst of a budget crisis that has resulted in cutbacks to student and administrative programs. Recently, the district threatened to shut down several schools, but backed off that plan after widespread protest from parents and citizens.
Two of the citizens' groups, one of which includes the city's top business leaders, are calling for an independent financial and administrative audit of the district by a third party.
Business leaders say they want the audit before they will support a mill levy that will likely be on the November ballot. The audit, similar to one recently conducted in Santa Fe, N.M., would show whether the district is getting the best return on its investments.
One of those citizens' groups is called Citizens, Parents and Taxpayers of District 11, or CPT-11. Their guiding force is D-11 board member Delia Armstrong-Busby, with key members including local developer and voucher advocate Steve Schuck and Bill Jambura, who lost a bid for the D-11 school board last November.
The group openly characterizes itself as aggressively militant and hostile to the present district power structure, and has received training and organizational advice from John Gardner, president of the Milwaukee board of education.
Gardner, the driving force behind that city's much-publicized voucher program, was recently in Colorado to promote vouchers to business and educational leaders all over the state.
Armstrong-Busby's group opposes November's likely mill-levy election. Instead, they are backing $1.8 million in administrative cuts. They are also calling for school officials to halt all school closures, and to spend more money directly on the classroom and less on what they call "pork projects and technology bells and whistles."
"It's not a good idea to give more money to something that isn't working," explained Armstrong-Busby. She holds that an independent audit, combined with reforms advocated by her group, will turn up enough previously unaccounted money to balance the budget and make a mill-levy election unnecessary.
More groups on the move
The second group, Support Our Schools (SOS), is a broad-based coalition of D-11 parents, teachers and citizens. Unlike Armstrong-Busby's group, SOS is attempting to work cooperatively with administrators to solve district problems.
SOS member Cathy Stemko said her group wants to support the schools and students, to participate in decision-making and to educate the public on school issues.
"We believe that civil interaction solves problems more effectively in the long run than subversive confrontation," she said.
Support Our Schools neither endorses nor opposes the November mill levy. "We want to educate the public about it and get them to vote," said Stemko, "but we don't tell people which way to vote."
A third, recently-formed group includes several of the city's top business and development leaders. Calling itself the Quality Community Group, its members are currently attempting to keep a low profile. Of his group's purpose, organizer Rocky Scott will say only that they want to address "quality of life issues in Colorado Springs."
Brainstorming in secret
Quality Community Group's main players include Scott, who is the chairman of the Economic Development Corporation, Chamber of Commerce president Will Temby, Steve Willis of the Colorado Springs Home Builders Association and Wynne Palermo of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.
Members say the future of District 11 is essential to the well-being of Colorado Springs.
"District 11 educates more kids than any other district in this city," said Scott. "It is not acceptable to let it decay."
This week, the business leaders' group met with Busby-Armstrong's group to "brainstorm" about possible solutions to D-11's financial problems.
Despite the fact that the topic at hand is public education, Scott insisted on secrecy and kicked Independent and KRDO Channel 13 reporters out of the gathering. Both media outlets had been invited to attend by Busby-Armstrong's reform group.
After the meeting, CPT-11 member Jambura said the business leaders appeared receptive to the idea of a financial and administrative audit of District 11.
"[Rocky] Scott said the audit would determine how well the district manages, spends and invests its funds," said Jambura, "and how effectively and efficiently administrators are performing their jobs."
The way to Santa Fe
District 11 administrators could not be reached at press time to comment on the possibility of an independent audit. However, on Tuesday, Scott said district officials have pledged to cooperate fully.
Jambura and other members of the CPT-11 group said that business leaders are currently being solicited for contributions to pay for the audit.
The financial and administrative audit would be similar to one recently conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers on the Santa Fe Public School system in New Mexico.
Concerns about how Santa Fe's school district was operating are similar to those that have been raised by District 11 critics. Detractors in Santa Fe, for example, claimed their public school system was top-heavy with administrators. Santa Fe's audit found, however, that the central administrative offices are staffed at or below levels in similar school districts nationwide.
The audit further recommended that, instead of forming an agenda and then selling it to the public, the district should form ongoing community focus groups to gather information on the community's views on school operations. In addition, the audit recommended the administration and board build an agenda based on what the focus group finds.
The focus group should include parents, teachers, administrators, support personnel, school volunteers, businesses, civic organizations and the media.
In the area of salaries -- a contentious issue here -- Santa Fe's audit recommended salary increases to every district employee except supervisors and managers. The Santa Fe district, the audit noted, ranked near the bottom in the state in terms of average teacher salaries. Colorado Springs District 11 salaries are also below average in Colorado.