Aspen district must make changes to cover costs |

Aspen district must make changes to cover costs

ASPEN – The Aspen School District likely will have to dip into reserves or make difficult cuts if it wants to unfreeze teacher wages in the coming years, the Board of Education learned Monday night.

According to finance director Kate Fuentes, the district is facing a $640,000 net shortfall for the 2012-13 school year. The good news is that remaining mill levy override funds can cover the deficit. The bad news is that the same shortfall is likely for 2013-14 and beyond, with no mill levy funds at the ready.

“What we know now is that we’re not as bad off as we thought for 2012-13,” Fuentes said. “But what we also know is that the future is very uncertain and continued cuts are a certainty.”

Fuentes presented several long-term budget scenarios to the school board Monday and cautioned that the $640,000 shortfall assumes salaries and wages remain flat. It’s a scenario that is not ideal, as administrators have had their salaries frozen for two years already and teachers have had just one pay increase spread over two years.

“We have a wonderful working relationship with the teachers association, but I think there is a breaking point,” said Aspen Superintendent John Maloy. “Going on three years with essentially no pay increases, I think we run the risk of having issues with staff morale and ultimately losing staff. This is the last thing they want. It’s the last thing we want.

“I think we need to have a conversation about how to prevent this from happening.”

Thus, Maloy and Fuentes said the district likely will need to consider making deep cuts, using reserves – which currently stand at $6.2 million – or some combination therein to cover costs.

“We can bite off one year at a time, but we need to have an eye on the long-range impacts,” Fuentes said. “At what point do we draw the line in the sand and say we are willing to use reserves to offset some of the shortfalls or that we are going to cover it by making some permanent program changes.”

On Monday night, the district’s budget-reduction task force offered its suggestions for doing just this by dividing some $346,000 in cuts into three tiers. Among the recommended cuts in Tier 1 is one middle school teaching position by attrition, the elimination of parts of some bus routes and an increase in student parking fees. Tier 2 cuts include a reduction in personal days for district personnel, the elimination of club sponsor payments and an increase in kindergarten tuition. At the Tier 3 level, proposed cuts include two teaching positions as well as the addition of a staff furlough day.

“This is not where we want to be, but it might be our reality,” Maloy said.

Maloy did say the district office believes many of the Tier 1 items – which total $81,000 – can be reduced irrespective of additional revenue becoming available to the district in the future and are already factored into the $640,000 net shortfall figure.

Other recommended cuts likely would be up for discussion, though, as such cutbacks would come on the heels of two years’ worth of budget slashing.

“We have tightened our belts,” said school board member Charla Belinski. “We have done the work. It hasn’t been easy, but the district has made a lot of cuts already.”

In fact, the district has cut more than $1 million from its budget over the past two years. Plus, the district will receive a projected $2.6 million less than it is owed in state equalization funds in 2012-13.

“Essentially, we need to figure out how to keep our programs going with less money than what the state calculation says we should be receiving,” Fuentes said.

And while the outlook for future years is vague, Fuentes said she is hesitant to be “overly optimistic” given the state’s economy and the competing interests for state funds.

“I think we need to look at the big picture and find some balance in meeting our funding shortfall,” she said, noting that a formal budget likely will be presented to the board in May.

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