MONTROSE—Ten years ago, Montrose voters approved a $23 million school bond package for facility upgrades. In return, the district brought those projects in on time, under budget–and returned the community’s investment with a total of $30 million in brick and mortar improvements.

Today, Montrose County School District Re-1J is once again looking at the possibility of funding improvements—this time, with the goal of building student achievement.

Laying the groundwork by listening to community members is an essential part of the process, said re-1J Superintendent Mark MacHale.

“We have held 54 community meetings, and gone to the schools,” MacHale said. “Our student achievement needs work; when we present and show the numbers, people are shocked and a little sad.

“Right now they are focused on listening, finding out what we need, and how they can help.”

The idea is to begin where prior improvements left off, he said.

“A decade ago, this district pulled itself out of a financial hole,” MacHale said. “We got the support of voters to do it, and we built quality buildings that were cost-effective. My job now is to work on student achievement. For kids who want to excel and who have parental support, we do a really good job. But we have got to give attention to the other kids; my job is to make sure that every kid who graduates is ready for post-secondary education, a career, and citizenship.”

Every problem that is present in society is present in the local schools, and educators are increasingly expected to deal with issues that were formerly considered private family matters.

“We have schools where 85 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunches,” MacHale said. “Poverty is a huge issue here; we have kids coming to school from families where school is not a priority. Our class sizes are crazy, we have cut reading teachers, the average computer in the district is six or seven years old, and we have no WIFI. Even the jail has WIFI!

“We have great kids and a great staff, but I would like to see more community support,” he continued. “It’s not okay for our teachers to spend $1,000 of their own money on classroom supplies. It’s not okay to give them 30 kids in a class, but not provide the materials and support that they need.

“For every soldier in the field, there are 100 people standing behind him,” said MacHale, a five-year U.S. Air Force veteran. “That kind of support is just as important for teachers; it takes a whole system to make it work.”

Excellent schools encourage community growth and investment, he said.

“The economy is not just about houses,” he said. “It’s people wanting to come here because of our schools. We can’t have a vibrant economy without an excellent school system. We are the largest single employer in the area; obviously our job is to create the best-educated populace that we can. However, we are not competing with other local employers but with other school districts—and we are 47th in the state when it comes to per pupil funding, one of the only districts in Colorado without a mill levy override.”

This coming spring, the district and school board will decide whether to ask voters to fund additional school improvements. At stake is the future not only of local schools, but of the community itself.

“We have just completed an audit of our tech resources, and will write a strategic plan,” MacHale said. “We need to invest $200,000 to $300,000 per year to get caught up and stay current—our schools should look like the world that our kids will live in and like the college they will go to.”

Addressing student needs takes resources, which require funding, he said.

“We have gone through every expense, and put them in the framework of, ‘is this helping student achievement?’ And we cut back on spending that had no direct effect,” he said. “My job is not to run this district as cheaply as possible, but to use the money we have as efficiently as possible, and achieve a return on the investment.”

By once again choosing to invest in local schools, local voters can demand a better future for local youth.

“We would be asking for an investment, but we expect to be held accountable,” MacHale said. “We need to tie additional resources to real accountability and student achievement. Our community has to trust that we would put the money toward things that benefit kids.

“We are doing amazing work,” he said. “We are putting in a reading program for K-5, and implementing new standards and written curriculum in every subject area. Our district office is totally geared toward supporting kids.

“Education is the future of our country,” MacHale said.