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Mill levy override could stave off some Re-1 cuts

John Stroud
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The Roaring Fork School District Re-1 could use some of its available reserve funds to bridge the district’s budget shortfall into 2012, if officials decide to put a mill levy override question to voters this fall.

“If the board opts to go in that direction, we could look at spending some reserve funds,” Re-1’s assistant superintendent of business services, Shannon Pelland, said Thursday.

“If not, we would not want to use reserves, because that’s one-time money and we’d eventually have to make those cuts the following year anyway,” she said.

The mill levy strategy is risky. It still does not take deep cuts in teaching positions, student transportation, athletics or administration off the table for next school year.

But it’s one option that seemed to earn at least some level of public support Wednesday evening, as the Re-1 school board opened a series of three meetings to gather input and come up with recommendations for $3.5 million in anticipated budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year.

With voter approval, school districts in Colorado can use a mill-levy override to exceed their combined per-pupil state funding and local property tax support for the general fund by another 25 percent, Pelland explained.

For Re-1, that comes to about $9.7 million.

The district already went to voters in 1999 and again in 2004 and won support for mill levy overrides, which now bring in an extra $4 million per year to the general fund. The money is used specifically to augment teacher pay, reduce class sizes and for technology instruction.

That leaves another $5.7 million in potential local mill levy support for the general fund. A portion of that amount could be in the mix as the Re-1 budget talks continue over the next month.

“We are taking these potential cuts very seriously, but we are also asking for any feedback as we make these decisions,” Re-1 board president Bob Johnson said at the Wednesday meeting. “We want to be as transparent as possible in this, and focus on what’s best for the kids.”

The meeting was held at the District Office in Glenwood Springs, with computer webcast feeds at Glenwood Middle School and in Carbondale and Basalt, the two other communities served by the district. In all, about 150 people listened in, posed questions and offered comments, Johnson said.

A similar format will be followed when the school board continues the discussion at its March 23 and April 13 meetings, set for 6 p.m. on both dates. The board is expected to make its final budget recommendations for next year on April 20.

If the district goes to voters in November with a mill levy question, it could use some of its $4 million in available reserve funds to augment next year’s budget in the meantime.

“The difficult thing about using reserves is that they are only there once, and that’s it,” Pelland said. “It’s like your savings account. Once you spend it, it’s gone.”

Pelland said in a follow-up interview that the district tries to keep an amount equal to 10 percent of its operating fund in reserve, which comes to $3.6 million.

“We don’t like to fall too much below that number,” she said.

The district has identified potential cuts totaling $2.1 million from its instruction and instructional support budget, including the elimination of 31 teaching positions districtwide.

Another $1.1 million in cuts could come from the portion of Re-1’s budget that includes district administration and student transportation.

Transportation alone costs the district $1.4 million per year, Re-1 Superintendent Judy Haptonstall said.

“Transportation is something that we are not required to provide,” she said. “We could eliminate it, or we could reduce that service.”

A fee for riding the bus has also been discussed in the past. However, any students who ride the bus who also qualify for the free or reduced lunch program could not be charged a fee, according to Pelland.

The other major area being looked to for cuts include special programs, such as athletics and other extracurricular activities.

“It could be that we will have to limit the number of contests and the number of (freshman and junior varsity) teams we field,” Haptonstall said. She added it may take cooperation with the Colorado High School Activities Association to accomplish some of the cuts.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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