As the principal of an elementary school in Apple Valley, Calif., Brian Ewert was so frustrated by the state and district mandates he had to follow that he considered changing careers.
“California was very top-down. The autonomy was nonexistent,” Mr. Ewert recalled of his experiences there some five years ago. “We had parent-community meetings and organizations on school improvement, but, realistically, there was little we could do.”
Hoping things would be better elsewhere, Mr. Ewert took a job as the principal of Mountain View Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1995. Since then, the 35-year-old administrator has enjoyed more freedom than he thought possible.
“I had no idea what autonomy was until I came to Colorado,” he said. “I was frightened by how much a school could do when the community gets behind you.”
To be sure, the Rocky Mountain State is no bastion of anything-goes education. It adopted statewide academic standards in 1993, and recently completed its second round of tests based on those standards. And districts must accredit local schools based on scores from the tests.
Last year, the legislature also adopted the Basic Literacy Act, which requires schools to test all K-3 pupils and devise individual reading plans and strategies for those who are at risk of falling below grade level.
Still, Mr. Ewert has taken advantage of state laws that allow his 410-student school to obtain exemptions from some administrative rules.
Two years ago, Mr. Ewert asked the school board in the 16,000-student Academy School District 20 to give him a budget worth $4,000 per student and a waiver from the district’s prescriptive funding formula.
“I didn’t want to be a charter school, but I wanted to be funded like a charter,” Mr. Ewert said, referring to the public schools that are allowed to operate free of most state and local regulations.
The board granted his request for the 1998-99 school year, and Mountain View’s staff has since proved willing to shift staff assignments in order to free up money for new academic programs.
For example, when a playground monitor retired recently, Mr. Ewert asked his teachers if they would share that task on a voluntary basis. In exchange, the monitor’s $10,000 salary could help pay for a new mentoring program designed to raise reading skills. The teachers signed on.
“This budget doesn’t give you more money, but it gives you more flexibility,” Mr. Ewert said.
Mountain View also found a way to reduce the amount it pays the district for transportation services. The school downsized from 13 buses and 156 stops to a hub-based system of nine buses and 40 stops. Some parents were upset, but the move will save the district up to $30,000 a year.
Nanette Anderson, the spokeswoman for the sprawling Academy district in northern Colorado Springs, said Mountain View was the first of three elementary schools allowed to use the alternative budget.
“We don’t let principals completely upend how they run schools,” she said. “But this gives principals an incentive to control costs.”
Ms. Anderson said the district is interested in expanding the model to more of its 25 schools. But, she added, “this is a very hard system to implement at the middle school and high school because things are more expensive.”
Steven J. Pratt, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said that more principals would like the breaks from protocol that Mr. Ewert has received. He noted that relatively few districts in Colorado take advantage of their ability to relax oversight of local schools.
Colorado districts soon may have more incentive to be creative, however, as state officials are working on an innovative program that would allow districts to negotiate “performance contracts” directly with the state.
Under the contracts, districts would agree to certain performance targets for a six-year period. Districts that fell behind could get technical aid from the state. Those that didn’t take corrective action could lose their accreditation. In exchange for agreeing on goals, districts would also be allowed to negotiate some relief from state rules.
Mr. Pratt said such contracts could force local school officials to think of new approaches to an old job.
“My sense is that lots of us in education need to take a long, hard look at how we conduct business,” he added. “The demands of patrons and communities say we must be more efficient.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Colorado School Seizes on Opportunity for Local Control