School dist. budget remains healthy

Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint school board addressed a number of items last week that will spell change for the district in the fall.

Foremost of those changes was a new school year budget that reflects a 4-percent increase over last year’s budget. However, before certifying the budget, the board put the cap on two items that had previously occupied a substantial amount of the board’s time and effort.

Approving new policy changes and a new substance abuse and sexual health curriculum, the board signaled not only a change in how the district would conduct itself but in how it will instruct all students, through the ninth grade, on an often uncomfortable subject.

Previously, the district had taken an abstinence-only approach to sexual health but will now take a more comprehensive approach to sexual health education in district schools. The new curriculum signals a shift in the district’s approach to sexual health and substance abuse, bringing the district in line with mandates from Colorado House Bill 1292.

Signed by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007, HB 1292 stipulates that Colorado public school sex education programs, “maintain content standards for the curriculum that are based on scientific research,” and, at the same time, “emphasize abstinence and teach that sexual abstinence is the only certain way and the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.”

With those items passed with dispatch and with little discussion or controversy, it was the task of district business manager Janell Wood to justify an expanded budget during tough economic times, especially with declining enrollment (down 2 percent by the end of the 2008-09 school year).

In fact, Wood said, “We built this budget on a projected enrollment of 1,425 students.”

That projection is 29 students lower than the 1,454 students enrolled at the end of the school year.

Nonetheless, with decreased student enrollment built into the budget, the assumption was that the district would propose cuts from the previous year’s budget. Wood explained that the expanded budget was due to an increase in grant funds from stimulus package money provided by the federal government.

Furthermore, Wood explained, those funds had strings attached that stipulated specific use. For instance, much of the federal allocation is specified for expanded No Child Left Behind programs and Special Education programs. Basically, with such strings, the conditions for the district in accepting the money was a “use it or lose it” proposition.

Wood also pointed out that Colorado Department of Education contributions had increased, for two reasons. First, Colorado Amendment 23 (passed in 2000 and mandated a state increase in K-12 education funding) added 1 percent to the budget. Along with that, the state also provided an additional 3.9 percent in funding as an adjustment for inflation.

Finally, even with decreasing enrollment, the district was funded by the state for a base enrollment of 1,526 students, 72 students above the 2008-09 year-end figure. Wood explained that districts are allowed to average enrollment across a five-year period, to the benefit of the district.

In total, expenditures in the 2009-10 budget remained steady relative to the previous year. Although instruction expenditures were decreased by 1-percent (still below the more than 2-percent drop in enrollment), that figure was qualified by pointing to the federal stipulations on grant funding. In fact, according to the budget report, had those funds not been attached to specific conditions, instructional funding would have increased by 1-percent.

The athletic and extracurricular budget was increased by 5 percent, a boost in funding that Wood attributed to the rise in transportation costs.

All things considered, the district appears to have taken a prudent approach to its budget, with general fund revenues increasing to match the 4-percent budget increase. That approach may be the result of the anticipation of leaner times ahead.

Several factors may influence how the district does business in coming years and, according to Wood, although the future is unknown, the district should plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Amendment 23 provisions expire this year and, although it is hoped that the Colorado Legislature will reauthorize the provisions of that amendment, it could also fall victim to the harsh realities of tough economic times. Another legislative factor that Wood said could diminish future funding is if the legislature ends the five-year averaging formula for funding based on student enrollment.

“It was brought up and failed last year,” said Wood. “But it’s out there and it could come up again.”

That funding will, however, diminish on its own, due to the steady decline in enrollment numbers over the past few years.

“We need to see a turnaround in the economy, if that’s going to improve,” Wood said, “and I don’t see that happening for at least two to three years.”

Finally, the federal government could change priorities before next year’s funding cycle and slash education funding in response to economic pressures. Mounting deficits coupled with a continued slumping economy could, conceivably, dictate belt-tightening across all levels of the federal government.

Yet, while in the midst of what is, by many accounts, the worst of the recession, the school district remains solvent and financially sound.

jim@pagosasun.com