More budget cuts in store for Aspen schools | AspenTimes.com

More budget cuts in store for Aspen schools

Students from Aspen Elementary School file into their buses at the end of the schoolday on Thursday, June 2. (Photo/Patrick Ghidossi)

ASPEN – When the bell rings Tuesday, and the last Aspen schoolkids run out the school doors, summer vacation is under way. But for Aspen School District administrators, summer 2011 will be far from carefree.

“Oh, there’s no summer vacation for us … we’ll be here,” laughed Aspen Superintendent Dr. John Maloy from his office on the district’s Maroon Creek campus. “In all honesty, though, there is a lot of work to be done over summer – always, but especially this year.”

In fact, the next Board of Education meeting on June 13 will have the five-member school board deciding on a budget for the upcoming school year. Looming larger will be the budget for the following school year; by all accounts, 2012-13 is likely to bring unprecedented cuts to the local public schools.

“There is a cliff ahead, and we are going to fall over it. There is no way around that,” said district finance director Kate Fuentes. “The question is just how steep that cliff is, and just how far we will fall.”

According to Fuentes, a combination of factors – including a dramatic reduction in assessed property values locally and a serious budget crisis at the state level – has left the district without its usual level of funding.

And though voters last November approved a $1.3 million property tax increase to soften the hit, Fuentes predicts a grim scenario. In fact, over the next two years, the district will need to address rising costs and state revenue reductions that total $1.35 million. And this figure could grow, depending on how quickly the state’s economy recovers.

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“We’re trying to preserve as much of the ‘one time funds’ that we have saved this year [from the first year’s mill levy proceeds] so that the deficit we will face for 2012-13 is as small as possible.” she said. “There is no set amount we have to cut now, but we know that everything we can save and not spend in 2011-12 will have a direct impact on the size of the deficit in 2012-13.”

Of course, Aspen is not alone in its battle to balance the budget. Schools across Colorado are having to slash their bottom lines, and in some districts – including Roaring Fork Re-1, which encompasses Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs – the cuts are deep.

So, as those charged with providing the best education for local children charge ahead in their efforts to do just that, it seemed apropos to do a little homework on where the Aspen School District stands with regard to school funding – in the past, present and future.

As the Unites States’ economy began its downward slide a couple of years back, so did the financial picture for school districts across Colorado.

In Aspen, it meant cutting close to $775,000 out of the district’s annual budget for 2010-11. This was accomplished in part by trimming the fat from school spending. But it also meant instituting two furlough days for teachers, increasing fees charged to parents for sports programs, and cutting jobs through attrition.

“The low-hanging fruit was plucked this year,” Fuentes said in fall of 2010, calling that budget cycle “painful” and adding at the time that future cuts would likely have to come at the expense of teacher salaries, class sizes and school programming.

Thus, district administrators and school board officials began looking ahead – to 2011-12 and 2012-13 – and to a way to create a steady income stream. Their focus was on a voter-approved mill levy override, which would put approximately $1.3 million into school coffers each year.

The tax increase meant property owners in the district would pay an additional $16 per year for every $500,000 of market value. Several meetings were held to discuss the topic and, ultimately, Boulder-based Harstad Strategic Research, Inc., was hired to determine whether Aspen voters supported the move.

A poll of 302 Aspen voters conducted in August 2010 confirmed that voters were overwhelmingly positive about the school district.

“The Aspen public schools win very impressive ratings from voters and even more so from ASD parents,” the survey said. “As pollsters, we have never seen better scores for a school district.”

And, in the Nov. 2 election, Aspen voters handily approved Referendum 3A by a vote of 3,325 to 1,859.

“We really trusted the voters to use their heads in making the right decision, and the results show they clearly trust us to do what is right for our kids,” said then-school board President Charla Belinski on election night. “This is a really great outcome for our entire community.”

But even on the heels of victory, Maloy acknowledged that the district hadn’t solved the entire problem. “We still have some work to do. But this mill levy override helps us close the gap; it allows us – in the big picture – to maintain the quality that our parents and the community have come to expect, as well as to retain the quality teachers we have recruited and trained, and who are key to the district’s success.”

With the 2010-11 school year well under way, Aspen moved ahead with the status quo. Students, teachers and parents were, for the most part, not being directly affected by the nearly $800,000 in cuts already made.

“As a whole, we were able to keep ourselves in a good position [in 2010-11]. We were able to keep cuts away from teachers, classrooms and programs,” said Maloy.

Fuentes noted, though, that the budget-cutting measures did have an impact: “Teachers had furlough days, and that wasn’t easy. And parents might have been asked to supply more paper, pens … all of that is because of budget cuts.”

The reality of the situation was never far from Maloy, Fuentes or school board members’ minds.

“Relative to other districts, we are in moderately good shape for the coming year,” school board member Bob Glah told about a dozen parents gathered for a public forum on the budget this spring. “But that might not always be the case.”

Indeed, when the final numbers were tallied, it became clear Aspen would not go unscathed by the ongoing state budget crisis.

According to Fuentes, the state’s working budget currently calls for a loss of $781 per student (original estimates had that loss at $927 per student), owing to a drop in property values and a recession-related drop in state tax revenue.

“Recovery at the state level is key to getting us – and school districts across the state – back on track,” noted Fuentes. “Thankfully, we in Aspen have another year to ride out the storm a bit.”

Still, the district must make cuts or use the entire $1.3 million in mill levy proceeds from 2010-11. A district-wide budget reduction task force was convened and a first draft budget was presented to the board of education in May.

Included in it were several revenue-generating ideas in addition to the mill levy monies, such as increasing kindergarten tuition, lunch prices and activity fees.

And while the draft budget did include small cost-cutting measures across the district, it did not include program cuts or teacher layoffs. Rather, it called for a return to the district’s standard pay raise schedule and the elimination of furlough days, which were enacted as a cost-saving measure this school year. This did not sit well with school board members.

“We just can’t be spending money on raises and all this other stuff when the rest of the country – and most other school districts – have had to stop,” said board president Fred Peirce. “We have been lucky up till now. We have to face the reality of the situation.”

According to Fuentes’ calculations, keeping the status quo – namely two furlough days and other salary-related measures – could save approximately $500,000, which could then be used toward saving teachers’ jobs in 2012-13 or funneled back into salaries sooner, should the economic tide turn.

“This is when we need that crystal ball that none of us have,” said Fuentes. “But it may be that the reasonable thing to do is save some dollars in our back pocket going in to 2012-13.

“The question is: How do we approach this year with so much looming uncertainty?”

Though the school board will approve a budget for 2011-12 by the end of June, one thing is certain: “There is more work to be done,” said Maloy.

Chief among his concerns is – even if existing mill levy monies are spread out for as long as possible and teachers and programs are protected – it won’t be easy.

“The reality is, most likely, that there will be changes,” he admitted. “But we have time to think them through, look at changing staff needs, think creatively about other funding opportunities.”

Among those opportunities is the continued support of the Aspen Education Foundation. According to Executive Director Cindy Kahn, AEF has given an estimated $250,000 to the schools each of the past two years; it is hoping to double that contribution in coming years. These moneys are used to fund such positions as the college counselor, IB coordinator, elementary school technology coordinator, middle school math specialist, theater teacher and more.

“If AEF did not fund these positions, it is safe to say they would not exist,” said Maloy. “These are not things we could just absorb, especially in the current climate.”

At the public budget forum, it seemed clear Aspen parents were willing to jump on this bandwagon to avoid drastic measures. In an impromptu brainstorming session on ways to bridge the gap, numerous ideas were thrown on the table, from partnering with nonprofits and corporations to having kids help solve the problem.

“It’s these creative solutions we need to pursue,” said parent Marilyn Seltzer. “They may be Band-Aids, but what other choice do we have? We have to find ways to stay ahead of the cuts.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com

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