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Colorado Rethinks One-Day Count of Attendance

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A new way of calculating attendance in Colorado schools last year for the purpose of allocating state education funds resulted in so much ''monkey business" that the state legislature seems certain to vote soon to return to the old method.

Late in its 1981 session, the legislature voted to calculate attendance in districts by counting the number of pupils who showed up on one day in October instead of averaging attendance during the entire month. That day--now known in the state as "ice cream day"--coincided with the one-day census of special-education students required by the federal government.

Serving free ice cream was only one of the inventive ideas individual school districts came up with to ensure maximum attendance--and a maximum share of the state's equalization fund, which is based on average daily attendance.

According to state Senator Al Meiklejohn, chairman of the Senate committee on education, one school constructed "the world's largest flapjack," one district gave away Denver Bronco pennants and bumper stickers, and one gave silver dollars to the children who came to school. Others held special parties, dished out ice cream, and showed movies.

"I don't want to give the impression that all the districts did this," he said, "or that all that did it did so in a deliberate effort to fleece the state. But some did."

Because school districts in Colorado rely on the state for about 55 percent of their funding, Mr. Meiklejohn conceded that there was reason for some districts to view the one-day attendance plan with apprehension.

"In October, you can get paralyzing snowstorms that come out of nowhere," he said. Many students are absent because of elk-hunting season, and some take off on nice days because they know there will not be many more, he added.

There are 181 school districts in Colorado, and Mr. Meiklejohn believes some "monkey business" took place in 40 or 45 of them.

The change in the law was "buried" in some legislation relating to the Colorado Handicapped Children's Act, Mr. Meiklejohn said, "but we were aware it was in there."

He said the state education department assured his committee the method was advantageous because all counting would be efficiently confined to one day, but would remain "statistically sound."

"They were very apologetic about this during the hearings we had after the day occurred," he added.

The new bill introduced by Mr. Meiklejohn, which has been passed by the Senate and has made its way out of the House education committee, would take the state back to the four-week counting period.

Most of the districts that "fleeced" the state lost the extra money.

The Colorado School Finance Act includes a provision requiring that any district wishing to spend over the allowed 7 percent per-pupil increase from year to year must go before a budget-review board.

This year, more than 100 districts went before the board, which is composed of the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer, and the chairman of the state board of education.

"Districts that had inflated their attendance had money taken away from them in that process," Mr. Meiklejohn reported. "That happened to about 40 of them."

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