Stephenson: A big voice for small schools

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Steamboat Springs School Board President Paula Stephenson is racking up miles on behalf of rural school districts across Colorado.

Since the state's legislative session began last month, Stephenson has split much of her time between Steamboat and Denver, where she testifies before legislative committees and lobbies behind the scenes in her role as executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus.

Stephenson was hired to head the caucus last September after being active in the organization since its formation in 2001. The Colorado Rural Schools Caucus was created to lobby for the state's rural school districts, which many people feel struggle to be heard among the more influential voices of large urban and suburban districts, Stephenson said.

"Our biggest goal is to lobby in Denver so 'one size fits all' legislation doesn't get enacted," she said Tuesday, using as an example legislative bills that target failing urban schools but carry with them serious implications for rural schools. "We just have a hard time getting our voice heard."

As the caucus' executive director, Stephenson speaks for 94 member districts. The state has a total of 178 school districts. The Steamboat Springs and South Routt school districts are members of the caucus. The Hayden School District was a member last year; it's unclear whether it will join the caucus this year.

Unlike the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association, all of which lobby on behalf of all state districts, the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus provides a voice solely for smaller districts, Stephenson said.

Last year, the caucus successfully lobbied for a bill amendment that gave exclusive chartering authority to districts with fewer than 3,000 students. The success was heralded as a victory for local control, which is one of the primary goals of the caucus.

"We have small communities that take huge interest in their schools," Stephenson said. "I think they hold schools more accountable then the state and federal government ever could."

This year, among other things, the caucus is lobbying for support of a bill that would allow districts to declare they won't comply with the federal No Child Left Behind education legislation, which Stephenson called an "unfunded mandate."

Now four years old, the caucus is beginning to expand its scope. It recently created a Rural Music and Arts Foundation that provides scholarships for rural students who want to attend summer music and arts camps. Jazz musician Keiko Matsui is headlining an April 7 benefit concert in Greeley that will provide money for the scholarship fund.

Stephenson, whose one-year contract as executive director expires in September, hopes to continue with the caucus on a long-term basis.

"We hope every year we're able to accomplish a little bit more," she said.

In the meantime, she'll continue commuting between Steamboat and Denver and checking the Internet for updates on proposed legislation and listening to live audio coverage of committee hearings.

"I love it, I really do," Stephenson said. "It's fun to be a part of the legislative process."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234 or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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