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District teachers to receive step raises

Local teachers received good news Tuesday night when the board of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint unanimously voted to reinstate step funding for teachers — the schedule by which educators and staff are provided annual raises for tenure and expanded qualifications.

Responding to greatly decreased state funding for K-12 education, the district froze step funding in order to prevent staff reductions. During the previous year, the district’s state funding was reduced by $1.35 million with an additional $804,000 in cuts this past year.

The decision to reinstate step raises followed a report presented by Robin Ball, representative from the District Accountability and Accreditation Committee (DAAC). In that report, Ball stated that the committee had determined four priorities for the district: funding improvement plans, reinstating step funding (as opposed to providing bonuses), equity in funding for cocurricular activities, and getting an accurate picture of the student-to-staff ratio within the district.

Ball said that the recommendation to reinstate step raises had been based largely on the fact that those raises would effect pensions while bonuses would have no effect.

“We’re talking about teacher’s futures here,” she said.

Later in the meeting, the board considered a resolution to reinstate step raises.

District Superintendent Mark DeVoti stated that previous budget cuts had allowed the district to ride out the worst and that sufficient cash in the district’s general fund existed to provide the raises.

Last month, the board decided on a three-prong approach to keep the district afloat while again avoiding Reductions in Force (RIFs).

The first two approaches, approved by the board at its March meeting, involved 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 would 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, agreeing to place those funds into reserves, to be used only in cases of “dire need.”

The final prong of the district’s budget strategy was to offer early retirement for a limited number of staff and then institute the aforementioned attrition policy.

According to DeVoti, that final approach had saved the district almost $200,000 this fiscal year while step raises would cost the district a little over $150,000.

DeVoti said that if Archuleta County awards the district SRS funds in October, reserves would not have to be tapped. However, should the county decide not to award SRS money in the fall, the district would need to draw down about $400,000 from General Fund reserves.

DeVoti said that SRS money accounted for a little less than $1.5 million in cash reserves.

Board director Joanne Irons asked how a potential drop in property tax valuations this year (anticipated by county staff to be between 25 and 30 percent) would affect district revenues due to diminished returns on the district’s mill levy.

“For once,” DeVoti said, “the (state’s) crazy equalization formula works in our favor. If we get less money from the valuations, we’ll get more funding from the state.”

Board director Ken Fox said that, in light of the district’s solvency facilitated in large part on the backs of staff salaries, it was only appropriate to approve the step raises.

“We borrowed from them to get through this,” Fox said. “It’s only fair that we pay them back.

After a unanimous vote by the board to approve unfreezing the raises, Irons added, “Teachers are underpaid ... I don’t think we should say we’re paying them back because I think they should be paid more.”

Responding positively to the DAAC recommendation, the district board made a decision to reward area teachers with raises that staff had largely agreed to forgo in order to retain jobs and preserve programs.

Ball’s report also indicated that DAAC is seeking three committee members to serve two-year terms. Ball said the open seats are for community members interested in area schools, who do not have children enrolled in the district, and are not employed by the district or related to someone employed by the district.

The next DAAC meeting will be Monday, April 25, at 5 p.m. in the Pagosa Springs Junior High School library. The district board meets again Tuesday, May 10, at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. for a work session) at the same location.

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