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School district counters budget shortfall

In an attempt to address an estimated $500,000-$1 million budget shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year (following a $1.3 budget cut from the 2010-2011 budget), the board of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint is deciding whether or not to take a three-prong approach in keeping the district afloat while again avoiding Reductions in Force (RIFs).

The first two approaches, approved by the board at its March meeting Tuesday night, involves extending a previously approved policy of attrition (not backfilling retiring or resigning staff), along with instituting a new policy for the 2011-2012 budget: dipping into the district’s General Fund reserves.

The portion of the reserves that the district will spend comes out of Secure Rural Schools (SRS) monies awarded to the district from Federal Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds paid to Archuleta County. The district has received SRS funds for the past three years (to the tune of $1.5 million), agreeing to place those funds into reserves and to be used only in cases of “dire need.”

“We’ve been saving the SRS money for a rainy day,” said District Superintendent Mark DeVoti, “and now it’s raining.”

According to district Business Manager Janell Wood, attrition in 2011-2012 would amount to about $165,000 in savings for the district if those positions vacated do not require replacements. DeVoti added that the total amount of SRS-specific reserves used would be determined by how much the state ultimately cuts from funding for the district, as well as how much saving would be realized if the district approves the third prong of the proposed budget strategy: buying out contracts for teachers nearing retirement.

Although the board spent some time discussing the buyout option, it deferred a decision on the option, scheduling a vote for a special meeting scheduled next Tuesday, March 15, at 5:30 p.m. in the Pagosa Springs Middle School library.

According to a prepared statement by DeVoti, the Voluntary Separation Incentive Agreement (VSIA), “(M)ay allow for senior staff members to leave the district if they are ready to do so, while receiving a financial incentive. It is similar to the current Early Retirement Policy, but allows for greater staff eligibility. Should it be approved at a subsequent meeting and should staff members find it beneficial, the district would then have the option of hiring new staff members lower on the salary scale, or eliminating the position to adjust for declining enrollment and reduced funding in the district.”

DeVoti emphasized that the district would not be forcing any teachers to accept VSIA terms and that he viewed the agreement as, “An act of appreciation and an opportunity for staff.”

Some audience members at Tuesday’s board meeting argued that a VSIA singled out tenured educators with the most experience and the best teaching practices. DeVoti countered that such an argument was based on a false premise and that time on the job did not equate with quality teaching.

DeVoti added that VSIA frees the district to hire younger teachers with a much stronger technology background and that, with the district’s move towards integrating more technology into education, those new hires would be an appropriate fit.

DeVoti estimated that VSIA would result in more than $200,000 savings for the district’s budget and that, with all three policies in place, the district could, “(A)void a Reduction in Force (RIF) of staff to meet these funding decreases, and to avoid the drastic reduction or elimination of multiple programs.”

DeVoti added that, “Accessing reserves will allow us to take some time to adjust to new funding levels, and may also allow time for the economy and legislative action to provide some funding solutions.”

Faced with imminent draconian budget cuts, the district needs to look at options that preserve jobs, programs and the quality of education that Archuleta County students and parents have come to expect, DeVoti said.

Acknowledging that Tuesday’s meeting could be contentious, DeVoti said that he has faith in the board’s — and the community’s – ability to work together to do what’s best for the district’s students.

“As cash poor as we may be becoming in Colorado, I know the Archuleta School District is rich with wonderful people willing to work together to make wonderful things happen,” he said.

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