A murky financial future for Aspen, Roaring Fork schools | AspenTimes.com

A murky financial future for Aspen, Roaring Fork schools

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Until at least the end of February, local school districts ” and their budgets ” will be playing a waiting game in the murky waters of state and federal funding.

All that seems clear now is this: the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts could lose some unrestricted state funding and they could gain federal money ” with strings attached.

And while government offices have offered hard projections about exactly where money might be lost or gained, there are still too many holes to make comprehensive guesses about next year, said Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko and Roaring Fork Superintendent Judy Haptonstall.

According to projections from the U.S. House of Representatives, the Aspen School District could receive approximately $107,000 next year from the federal stimulus package passed by the House on Wednesday. The package is currently being vetted by the Senate.

On the other hand, according to projections from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, the Aspen district could stand to lose $280,000 in state funding next year. That’s if Colorado adopts a recommendation to roll back cost-of-living adjustments to 2000-01 levels. The state provides the adjustments to districts in costly areas, in recognition of the higher cost of living.

But Sirko pointed out the state and federal dollars are not an exact trade, because the federal funds come with restrictions. They would be allocated toward low-income students, construction projects and students with disabilities, according to the House website.

Still, Sirko said, the extra federal money would certainly help offset any decreases at the state level.

“I mean, believe me, we’ll take it,” she said.

The Roaring Fork School District stands to gain roughly $1.3 million next year from the federal stimulus package, according to House projections.

On the other hand, it could stand to lose just more than a half-million dollars in unrestricted state funding next year, if the state adopts the cost-of-living rollback. “Certainly we’re one of the districts that would be impacted the most by [a cost-of-living rollback],” said Haptonstall.

But the biggest factor is still unknown: per-pupil funding. And it will remain uncertain for several more weeks.

“February 20 will be the big day,” said Sirko. “They can still mess around with the factors, but that’s the biggest factor.”

According to its constitution, Colorado must increase per-pupil education spending each year by at least inflation plus 1 percent. That number is scheduled for release on Feb. 20, according to Sirko. And it’s a particularly difficult number to predict right now because in Colorado, 2008 appeared to be a year with a fairly strong beginning and a rough ending.

Once the Aspen School District understands its per-pupil funding, it can start making decisions about next year’s budget. Sirko expected to “really have to examine what’s possible, and not, and where we need to cut back” by March 1. If cuts need to be made, the school board will make them with input from each school, as well as its financial advisory board.

Even then, school districts may not be totally out of the woods. Sirko pointed out that the state has the power of rescission: It can call back money in the fall, even after districts have allocated it. The last time Sirko saw a rescission was about seven years ago, she said.

kredding@aspentimes.com


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