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School board moves to cut $1.35 million

Last Thursday, the board of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint made preliminary decisions on how it will cut most of $1.35 million from its 2010-2011 budget.

With the state of Colorado facing its own budget cuts (and a statutory requirement to balance the state’s budget), schools were handed a proportionate cut in funding — about 47 percent of the state’s budget.

In 2009, Colorado saw a little over $50 billion in reduced tax revenues. Last fall, Gov. Bill Ritter told the Colorado Department of Education that school districts should be prepared for a 6.4 percent decrease in funding. However, those initial estimates rose and school districts now face an 8.7 percent cut in funding.

Currently, Colorado is 49th in funding for schools among all 50 U.S. states and ranks fourth in dropout rates.

Aside from discretionary cuts (allowed by board policy), the board accepted, by unanimous vote, the following cuts for the next fiscal year:

• Adoption of a five-block schedule at the high school.

• Two district-wide furlough days.

• Freezing the salary schedule (automatic pay raises for teachers).

• Opting out of adopting science text books for the next year.

• Suspension of the Voluntary Early Retirement Policy.

With the district cutting staff salaries through furloughs, attrition, reductions in force and salary freezes, District Superintendent Mark DeVoti reported that staff would be looking at an overall cut of 6.11 percent — amounting to less than half of necessary cuts.

Still uncertain if the 9 percent cut would be necessary, Board Director Bill Nobles asked, “Can we prioritize these (cuts) if there is a shift?”

DeVoti responded that the district would revisit the cuts should fortunes change in funding or revenues. However, he emphasized that salary and staffing cuts would most likely remain should other cost-cutting measures not be required.

Board Director JoAnn Irons reminded the board that, although some contingencies could mitigate the district’s fiscal crisis (federal grants, a reversal of mandated cuts by the state Legislature), current conditions in the area could require further cuts. “I’ve been talking to realtors, there’s a mass listing call,” she said. “All these people saying, ‘As soon as the school year is over, I’m out of here.’ (These cuts are) not realistic because of unstable enrollment. If we lose 100 students, that’s $700,000.”

The district receives a per-pupil amount of equalization funding from the state and declining enrollment equates to diminished funding for the district.

While possibilities of raising money for the district through an increase in the local sales tax or increased mill levy were not discussed by the school board at its meeting, those issues were brought up during a public forum hosted by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday at the Ross Aragon Community Center.

At the forum, the county revealed that the BoCC was considering three initiatives for the November ballot: a one-cent sales tax increase to raise revenue for the school district or roads (or both), a mill levy increase for the school district and the formation of a special district (with an accompanying mill levy increase to fund the district) for the Archuleta County Education Center.

While advocates for the special district made a compelling argument for funding expanded technology and educational opportunities at the Education Center, it was the school district that captured the attention of most of the audience.

“If we don’t put in the money to fund our schools, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” said local resident Jody McAlister. “It will become a ghost town.”

Agreeing, Education Center board member Dave Richardson said, “You need to stop looking at taxes as an expense — you’re never going to raise them if you do. But if you look at them as an investment ... you have a good chance of getting them passed.”

However, several members of the audience questioned the wisdom of presenting tax increases during a depressed and volatile economic environment. “My take on this,” said local resident Bob Clinkenbeard, “is that if all three of these are placed on the ballot, they’re all going to fail.”

In fact, some audience members asked if the present was the best time to propose tax increases. However, given the exigency of the school district’s financial woes, local resident Teri Frazier said, “I don’t think four years from now is the time.”

In fact, even if voters approve a sales tax or mill levy increase, revenues from those initiatives would not fund the district until well into 2011. With the school district not statutorily compelled to finalize its 2010-2011 budget until June of this year, it would nonetheless not include any potential revenues raised from local sales taxes or an increase in its mill.

It will be up to the district to decide if it will pursue either a mill levy or sales tax increase on this November’s ballot. Until then, the ugly reality of a $1.35 million budget decrease remains.