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School district faces major budget cuts

Faced with a $1.35 million budget shortfall for the 2010-2011 school year, officials of Archuleta School District 50 Joint will propose what some may consider drastic cost-cutting measures at next Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“I’d like to see if we can get a decent public audience, to get ideas and discuss,” said District Superintendent Mark DeVoti.

Considering the extent of cuts and measures proposed, DeVoti well may see a packed room for the meeting, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m. in the Pagosa Springs Junior High School library.

One of the proposals to be heard Tuesday night will be the closing of the Pagosa Springs Intermediate school, with sixth-graders attending classes in the junior high building and fifth-graders finding classroom space at Pagosa Springs Elementary school. According to DeVoti, closing the intermediate school would amount to $140,000 in savings. However, the building itself would not be closed, since the district’s Information Technology department is located there and moving it — equipment and wiring — is estimated to cost $300,000.

What the district intends to do with the PSIS building has not been discussed. While options have been considered, such as leasing the building for offices or selling it outright, no serious discussion has taken place regarding the fate of the building.

Another, more controversial proposal would be the adoption of a four-day school week. The proposal is controversial because last month, in a presentation to the school board, District Accountability and Accreditation Committee (DAAC) representatives recommended the district not go to a four-day school week. Furthermore, districts that have gone to a four-day school week have not been able to quantify exact savings after having made the change.

However, DeVoti said that a four-day school week is estimated to save the district around $130,000.

While reasons for going to a four-day week have been primarily financial, just how much savings the district would realize is far from clear. While transportation and food costs would certainly be cut (with one less day a week required for those services), facilities would still need utilities for school and community functions, realizing, at best, negligible savings. Furthermore, savings at the district would come at the expense of workers who could least afford the pay-cut: Transportation, food-service and janitorial staff.

Going to a four-day school week would mean that Archuleta County students would be in school an additional 1.5 hours per day. An extended school day could be a problem for primary school students. More than that, there are also safety concerns, with children having to walk home after school in the dark, due to the lengthened school day. Potentially, there could be an added burden to working parents as one less day in school would require many of those parents to find — and pay for — additional child care. In fact, at the Jan. 12 meeting, DAAC representative Lisa Scott said that the issue of childcare, “ ... shifts the burden of district savings to other social service agencies.”

What also concerned DAAC was the dearth of empirical data regarding student achievement scores in districts on a four-day school week. No sound evidence exists showing either improved or declining student achievement scores after districts have shortened their school weeks.

In it’s favor, parents and teachers surveyed in districts that have been with a four-day school week for several years report anywhere between 80- to 90-percent of community members favor continuing with the schedule.

Other ideas that have been proposed (and may be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting) include: furlough days for all staff; possible reductions in force; no step funding (increases in teacher salary); reductions to co-curricular activities; no expenditure on new textbook adoptions; a proposed reduction in the capital reserve transfer and possible reductions in student transportation.

DeVoti said that decisions on staffing would not be made at this point, deciding to wait for more information on staff attrition for 2010-2011.

“One of the challenges is, with this intense amount of cuts, is not touching staff,” DeVoti said.

When asked if the district had considered proposing an increase to the mill levy, DeVoti responded that, “We have not really had any discussions on that.”

One of the reasons the district had not entertained a mill levy increase is due to a recent Colorado Department of Education assessment of district schools which suggested that the district could qualify for BEST (Build Excellent Schools Today) funding. In that assessment the ratio of dollars required for suggested repairs to the elementary, intermediate and junior high schools relative to the cost of building new schools was high enough to justify BEST funding.

“If we stand to gain 50 to 80 percent from BEST, we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot down the road on a bond issue.”

DeVoti’s contention was that voters would be reluctant to pass a bond issue if that initiative followed on the heels of a mill levy increase.

“Even if we did the mill levy, it wouldn’t take effect until next year,” he said, implying that an increase in the mill levy would not address immediate budget concerns.

However, those concerns go beyond the 2010-2011 school year and the district estimates an additional $840,000 to $1 million budget shortfall in 2011 – 2012, an estimated total two-year reduction between 2.129 – 2.35 million dollars.

Clearly, with the district facing a severe monetary crisis over the next two years, the district is hungry for ideas that could help it avoid a budgetary disaster while trying to maintain quality education. As such, DeVoti and the school board hope to see a well-attended school board meeting next Tuesday, with plenty of input and constructive discussion.

“I really hope we have a lot of people there,” he said. “People need to be heard. People need to be kept up to date.”

jim@pagosasun.com