04/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Choose Your Poison

When it comes to money and public education, I am of two minds. On the one hand, I do not believe that pouring more money into dysfunctional systems will by itself solve the underlying problems that plague education.

Some members of interest groups were ready to string me up last year when I used inartful language to suggest that federal stimulus money could be wasted if it was used only to prop up broken institutions.

On the other hand, I found a story by Mike Booth in Sunday's Denver Post about crushing budget woes in Colorado Springs to be shocking and disturbing. Although the story dealt with city government rather than the school district, it gave me a canary-in-a-coal-mine feeling. In case you missed it:

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday.

The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops -- dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero. [...]

Wow. Sure, Colorado Springs is the home of anti-government zealot Doug Bruce, and is known for its ultra-conservative politics and aversion to taxes. But did average citizens in that spectacularly situated town have any idea what they were about to lose when they, according to the Post, "said an emphatic no (last November) to a tripling of property tax that would have restored $27.6 million to the city's $212 million general fund budget?"

It's when I read stories like this one that I feel more in tune with organizations, like Great Education Colorado, which advocate tirelessly and somewhat monotonously for increased education spending in Colorado. Yes, education is underfunded here, if you look at needs (including capital construction) versus resources. No, education isn't close to the Colorado Springs cliff. Not yet.

But it could get there. As EdNews' Todd Engdahl reported last year:

The state's financial clock is ticking because 2011 is when Referendum C (the five-year window during which the state can spend "extra" revenues under TABOR), one factor in Amendment 23 (the multi-part formula requiring annual increases in K-12 spending) and federal stimulus money all expire.

So this is the moment for people to shed their pet ideologies and their mantles of self-interest and get serious about how to tackle these challenges in a sensible manner.

That's easy to say, of course, but as recent political debacles in Washington demonstrate, difficult to do. Nancy Mitchell reported last week that as school districts grapple with profound budgetary challenges, jockeying for position is already under way. In several districts, state budget cuts mean teachers will not be getting their full raises.

In Jefferson County, two school board members touched the third rail by passing on a community suggestion that perhaps teachers' base salaries should be frozen. Jefferson County Education Association President Kerrie Dallman called the proposal "insulting."

But Jeffco, which has had a tough time passing mill levy hikes and bond issues in recent years, provides an excellent illustration of the challenges districts and unions face in the coming months and years.

Teachers, famously under-compensated, do not want their salaries frozen. Who does? Nor do they, or their communities, want to see layoffs and the class-size increases that would result.

So something has to give - and probably more than one thing.

Are we capable of working together across various divides to forge creative solutions? Stay tuned. We'll find out in the coming months.

As we move forward, let's all keep the cautionary tale of Colorado Springs in mind.