Aspen schools brace for state budget cuts |

Aspen schools brace for state budget cuts

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Aspen School District, bracing for a state-ordered budget cut that could range from $600,000 to $1.2 million, is contemplating potential staff reductions, a salary freeze and possible furloughs for the 2010-11 school year.

Despite the cost-cutting moves, the district is hoping to keep staff cuts to a minimum and retain all of its existing programs, according to Superintendent Diana Sirko.

Nothing has yet been decided, as the district doesn’t yet know how deeply it will have to cut, but the revenue-strapped state has told the district to anticipate a 25 percent reduction in funding over the next three years, including a 6 to 9 percent cut for the coming school year, she said.

District administrators will prepare a budget that reflects various tiers of cuts – from $600,000 to $1.2 million. At the top end, the district could have to reduce its staff by the equivalent of six full-time positions, she said. On the low end, it could be one or two positions.

“We’re definitely looking at a salary freeze,” she said. “Every district that we know of is talking about a salary freeze.”

Staff furlough days are also being considered, at a savings of about $68,000 per day. A snow day, when weather forces cancellation of classes, is an obvious candidate. Staffers currently get paid for those days. Eliminating a day of classes and adding minutes to the school day over the course of a year to make up the time has also been discussed. Such a move requires talks with the local teachers’ union, Sirko said.

Also contemplated is increasing the fee students pay to participate in athletics from $80 to $100 per season.

The Aspen district is in somewhat better shape than some other districts, at least in the near term, thanks to a transportation and technology mill levy approved by voters in 2008, according to Sirko. Some of the funds from that tax can be allocated to expenses that have been coming from the district’s general fund, temporarily reducing the need to slash the budget. The levy expires in 2011, though.

“It’s a short-term bailout,” Sirko said.

With 85 percent of the district’s budget allocated to salaries and benefits, there’s no way to avoid staff cuts altogether, Sirko said.

The 2010-11 district budget won’t be ready for review in draft form before June – after the state legislative session ends in May – but the Aspen School Board will get a budget update on March 1. Meetings that have yet to be scheduled are also planned next month to keep the public abreast of potential cost-cutting moves.

The school board on Wednesday debated district programs and policies they consider “non-negotiable” when it comes to budget cuts.

The International Baccalaureate program, which allows students to essentially complete freshman-level college courses while they’re still in high school, received general consensus as a keeper. So did the district’s popular experiential/outdoor education program, which allows students to take part in various outdoor or civic projects around the state and country, or beyond. It may see tweaking, but won’t be cut, the board agreed.

“Nobody wants to eliminate ex ed or outdoor ed. Everybody thinks they’re a very important part of what the Aspen School District is,” Sirko said. The program trips are largely paid for by the students themselves, she added. The district spends roughly $18,000 to $20,000 per year on the program.

“I would have to say, in our community, the arts are non-negotiable,” Aspen High Principal Charlie Anastas told the board.

Board members did suggest a willingness to fudge slightly on class-size caps if it can prevent the district from needing to add another class in a particular grade or subject area.

However, a class with only a handful of enrollees, which might have gone forward as planned before the belt-tightening, will probably be canceled under the new reality, Sirko said.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re doing all the budget reductions so we don’t lose any programs,” she said. “It really forces you to look very closely at efficiencies.”

State legislators are grappling with a package of tax changes and cuts to help close a combined $1.5 billion budget shortfall this year and next year.

Forty-five percent of the state’s budget goes to K-12 education, according to Sirko.

The Aspen district, though it’s facing cuts, is one of nine school districts in the state that won’t be returning much in the way of revenue to the state by reducing its expenses. More than 90 percent of the district’s budget is raised through local property taxes; in other areas where property values aren’t as high, schools rely far more heavily on state funding.

Of the district’s current $16.8 million budget, about $160,000 was slated to come from the state, said Kate Fuentes, chief financial officer.

To enact the cuts, the state’s school financing formula will be adjusted to lower school spending. In Aspen, the district’s mill levy would be adjusted downward so the schools take in less revenue, she said.

The Aspen School Board will host a Feb. 23 forum on the topic of school district financing in the state of Colorado.

The guest speaker will be Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer and deputy superintendent of finance in the Colorado Springs public schools.

The forum is open to the public. It begins with coffee at 8:15 a.m. and the program at 8:30 a.m. in the seminar room at Aspen High School.

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