From Aspen to Garfield County, schools challenged by state cuts
Ryan Summerlin June 3, 2014
For the past two years, students in Rifle, Silt and New Castle have attended school four days per week, so public school officials can shave $500,000 from their annual budget.
To lend a hand and give the students something educational to do on Fridays, the Garfield County Library District has hosted “The 5th Element,” a once-per-week enrichment program for elementary and middle school children from the Garfield School District Re-2. On one hand, the school district is clearly in a tough position. On the other hand, the broader community is stepping up on the kids’ behalf.
It’s a highly unusual situation in western Garfield County, but the four-day school week is just one among hundreds of adaptation strategies to be found across Colorado as school districts have responded to a steady, multiyear decrease in state funding.
Since the Great Recession hit in 2008-09, public schools have been cutting budgets and/or trying to generate new revenue in an attempt to offset the decline in state funding, which now totals more than $1 billion. Many districts, including Aspen and Roaring Fork, have passed mill levies and collect more local revenue, but voters haven’t approved these proposed solutions everywhere. Thus some districts have fared pretty well through the past five years, but others — especially small districts with lean property tax bases — have suffered.
“Each individual district has a little bit of a different experience based on what their voters were willing to do to backfill the gap,” said Diana Sirko, a former Aspen School District superintendent who now occupies the same position in the Glenwood Springs-based Roaring Fork district. “Aspen passed a mill levy (in 2010). Roaring Fork passed a mill levy in 2011, which was $4.5 million. … (Garfield) Re-2 did not pass their mill levy, so they had to go to the four-day week.”
A combination of state-level factors led to this funding crisis. Even before the economy tanked, Colorado lawmakers were grappling with three conflicting constitutional amendments, two of which protect taxpayers from state and local tax increases and a third that obligates the state to increase spending on K-12 education. Policy wonks use the term “perfect storm” to describe how these voter-approved amendments behave in an economic recession, and the past five years or so have resulted in a gradual siphoning of money from public schools.
“A couple years ago, I felt like you can’t get blood from a turnip,” said Susan Birdsey, superintendent of Garfield Re-2. “If the state didn’t have the funding, then what were we going to do? I think this year we chose to fight pretty hard for funding because they had some money.”
In January, seeing that the state’s revenue picture was beginning to turn around, superintendents from 171 of the state’s 178 school districts signed a letter bemoaning the “extreme state of inadequate funding for Colorado’s public schools” and urging lawmakers to “begin restoring K-12 funding to pre-recession levels.”
The now-famous “superintendents’ letter” marked the beginning of a lobbying blitzkrieg that helped convince legislators to increase school funding for the first time in years.
Hours before they adjourned on May 7, lawmakers approved $110 million in general funding for public schools, plus additional investments in early-literacy programs and charter school capital construction. It wasn’t close to the $275 million that superintendents had requested, but it wasn’t chump change, either. The Colorado Association of School Executives estimates that schools will receive an average additional $367 per pupil.
Aspen Journalism spoke with officials from the Aspen, Roaring Fork and Garfield Re-2 districts about the recently approved legislative package and what it might mean for their school systems.
Garfield Re-2 School District
The key thing to know about Garfield Re-2, the district that serves western Garfield County from New Castle to Rifle, is this: Even though the district has taken the drastic step of going to a four-day school week and is thus saving $500,000 annually, it still relies on a reserve fund for about $1.6 million per year in order to keep its class sizes and programs at acceptable levels.
“We’re very fortunate in that we did have funds in a savings account,” Birdsey said. “So over the last couple of years, even though we did make those cuts, we’re still deficit-spending.”
Despite attending school only four days per week, Re-2 students still receive the same amount of overall instruction. The cost savings to the district come mainly from cooks, bus drivers and support staffers who aren’t needed one day per week.
In November 2011, district officials asked voters for a $3 million mill-levy override, but they received only 37 percent of the vote. Among the $3 million in changes they eventually made were:
• Eliminating 23 administrative, teaching and paraprofessional jobs.
• Freezing salaries.
• Eliminating summer school.
• Cutting travel and overtime.
• Raising fees for sports programs.
• Eliminating transportation routes.
As a result of the new state legislation, Garfield Re-2 should receive an additional $1.6 million in 2014-15, a major infusion but not enough to offset the $5 million per year that the state failed to provide.
“Before all this legislation, we were looking at having to cut a couple of million dollars out of our budget in three years,” Birdsey said. “Now I think we’ll be able to stretch it out maybe a couple more years.”
In other words, district officials are still expecting to reach a “fiscal cliff,” when they no longer can lean on their reserves and may have to close a school. But the state infusion should delay that eventuality. Birdsey hasn’t ruled out another appeal to the district’s voters in coming years, but she also hopes legislators will restore more K-12 funding as the state’s economy grows.
“I have heard legislators say this is the largest investment they’ve made in education in years,” Birdsey said. “I’m fairly offended by that. It is not an investment; it’s a payment of their debt.”
Aspen School District
The Aspen School District has weathered the recession better than most, thanks to its voters, who agreed to support the district with a mill-levy override in 2010 and a sales tax (city of Aspen only) in 2012. Chief Financial Officer Kate Fuentes also applauds the diligence of the nonprofit Aspen Education Foundation, which has long supplemented the district’s own revenue sources.
“We’re very, very fortunate to have a hugely supportive community that came in and picked up where the state couldn’t provide,” Fuentes said.
Still, Aspen has had to reduce spending. The district froze salaries, cut travel and professional development, reduced school supplies, enacted furlough days, eliminated two positions and let others go unfilled when employees left or retired. But basic academic and extracurricular programs were mostly untouched.
“The staff as a whole took a hit with furlough days and salary freezes and those kinds of things,” Fuentes said. “But what we asked the community for, with the mill-levy override and the sales tax, was ‘Don’t make us dismantle the program because of the state’s failure to provide the dollars we’re supposed to get.’ … We want to maintain what we’ve got.”
With the latest state infusion, which Fuentes expects to amount to more than $300,000, plus an inflationary increase, the Aspen district will be able to hire additional staff in math, music and world languages. There also will be some additional help with technology and a “data and curriculum person” to handle some of the state’s unfunded mandates related to student performance and teacher accountability.
“We have intentionally tried to keep our administrative staff as thin as possible,” Fuentes said, “but it finally got to the point where we couldn’t do what we needed to do.”
Aspen district officials are thankful for some long-awaited state dollars, but whether lawmakers will continue to backfill in subsequent years is unknown. On the local front, the temporary sales tax passed in 2012 will expire in 2016, so Fuentes expects the district will prepare another measure for voters to consider in 2015 or 2016.
“Yes, we have a fix for the moment, but we can’t necessarily count on state relief,” Fuentes said.
Roaring Fork School District
The Roaring Fork School District saw fiscal trouble coming in 2010-11, when the governor’s budget proposal included a 7 percent reduction in K-12 school funding. The district responded by carving $2.6 million out of its 2011-12 budget, roughly 6 percent of total spending.
Knowing that state revenues were expected to continue diving, however, Assistant Superintendent Shannon Pelland warned her colleagues that their troubles weren’t over. She recommended the district pursue a local property tax increase to offset the damage. It was a prescient decision.
Now, though the district continues to receive roughly $7 million less than it should from the state each year, the mill-levy override approved by the district’s voters in fall 2011 delivers about $4.8 million. That local infusion enabled the district to restore many of the jobs and programs eliminated by budget cuts and took much of the sting out of subsequent years.
Nonetheless, Roaring Fork still had to trim virtually everything outside the actual classrooms — custodial services, athletic programs, the business office and bus transportation, to name just a few.
This year, having heard a chorus of complaints from public school administrators about budget cuts, increasing class sizes, deferred maintenance and other growing problems, lawmakers answered with $110 million for public schools.
“It’s not what we wanted, but it’s a lot better than zero, which is what we’ve been getting,” said Superintendent Diana Sirko, who is also president-elect of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “Actually we’ve been getting below zero.”
With the new state money, Roaring Fork will be able to partially restore its custodial staff and address some delayed repairs. Staff members are slated to receive a 1.8 percent raise, Sirko said, and the district will reinstate a coordinator for so-called English-language learners. There will be room for some travel and professional development again. Like Aspen, Roaring Fork also will add staff to address the state’s various unfunded accountability requirements.
“Now we’re able to maybe fully implement the things we’ve been charged with doing,” Sirko said. “We’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s nice to know it’s not a train.”
Bob Ward writes for Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism’s education desk and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of education. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.