Members of the Cherry Creek School District community wanted to find bright spots in a big picture that could easily feel more than a bit overwhelming and bleak.
After hearing in-depth presentations regarding Colorado school finance policy during the annual Day at the Capitol event sponsored by the Cherry Creek Community Legislative Network, CCSD parents, students, employees and community members wanted to know how they could make a positive and lasting difference. They'd heard about the state's conflicting laws when it comes to funding schools; they'd heard that, despite a strong local economy, the outlook for the state budget for the coming years is far from rosy.
Even so, they wanted to know how to make a lasting and positive difference for students in the Cherry Creek School District, and CCCLN Co-President Ilana Spiegel had a clear answer.
"It's about going to schools and getting involved," Spiegel said, following up on themes she'd touched on at the beginning of the group's daylong visit to the Colorado State Capitol building.
Spreading that message and offering that note of empowerment was a central mission of the Day at the Capitol event held March 23. Participants heard from CCSD Superintendent Harry Bull, CCSD Board of Education President Randy Perlis and Chief Financial Officer Guy Bellville before visiting the Senate and House galleries, where they watched local legislators in action. Following a presentation on Colorado school finance and budget matters by Natalie Mullis, a state economist and Legislative Council staff member, participants communicated directly with local representatives during a lunch session held across the street from the Capitol.
Throughout the day, CCSD administrators and representatives from the CCCLN stressed the importance of participation and communication again and again.
Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne kicked off the event by stressing the importance of dialogue and participation when it comes to impacting education policy in the state.
"Your voice is really important; you are a powerful advocacy group … Talk to your legislators," Lynne said. "We can't talk about the state being successful unless we talk about education."
Direct communication with lawmakers was a theme that popped up again and again in feedback from CCSD officials. Board President Randy Perlis, who attended the event along with the other four board members, advocated for a tireless approach when it came to communicating with legislators. Perlis, who is serving his final year on the board because of term limits, said he plans on returning to the Capitol as a CCSD parent once his term is complete.
"Persistence pays off. Don't get discouraged, don't give up," he told the group. "I will be here next year because I see the importance of this. Parent involvement is what makes Cherry Creek a great school district. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't be shocked by the answers."
Early in his address to the group, Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull said that community engagement had an important impact for the district's more than 54,000 students. To illustrate his point, he welcomed four students from elementary and middle schools across the district – Lucy Cochran, Luke Parish, MiShynn Spivey and Ashley Thomas – and reminded attendees that policy finalized at the state level has a direct impact on their education.
"It's important for us to come down here and engage with our legislators, but it's not just about crunching billions of dollars with the budget," Bull said. "We can't do 'One Size Fits All' in a district of more than 54,000 students."
Bull also offered an overview of the current legislative session and pointed to the absence of any pending education policy that would substantively affect Cherry Creek Schools. While he noted the possibility of a vision study, a school finance study and an accountability study from the state Legislature in the near future, he noted that there are no major education policies currently making their way through the state system.
"So far this year, they've left us alone," Bull said. "The work we need to do now is look forward."
Bull also paid tribute to the work of CCSD Chief Financial Officer Guy Bellville, who is retiring at the end of the year. After 25 years of presentations to the group, Bellville delivered his final fiscal overview for the CCCLN's Day at the Capitol event. Instead of focusing too heavily on the intricate details of state guidelines like the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23, Bellville stressed the importance of local control when it comes to the financial policy of CCSD. That includes maintaining the district's ability to pass bond and budget measures as it did in the fall of 2016.
"(Measures 3A and 3B) are the perfect example of local control," he said. "Please be involved in the legislative process. That is how Colorado and public schools will continue to improve."
Attendees then had the opportunity to visit the Senate and House galleries. On the House floor, Colorado Reps. Janet Buckner and Cole Wist both acknowledged the Cherry Creek School District, paying tribute to Bull, Bellville and Director of Communications Tustin Amole.
Along with the firsthand interaction with lawmakers representing the district during the lunch session, that firsthand, direct interaction summed up the spirit of the event.
"These are your elected officials," Spiegel told the group. "They represent you."