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Historic budget cuts hammer districts

School districts in Colorado are shedding hundreds of jobs, pulling millions of dollars from reserves and piling on student fees as they face the biggest budget cuts in memory.

In Douglas County, 380 jobs are slated for elimination for the 2010-11 school year. In the Adams 12 Five Star school district, that figure is 188. In Cherry Creek, it’s 155. In Jefferson County, it’s 137. In Littleton, it’s 98.

Districts are contemplating the previously unthinkable – Douglas County and Adams Five Star, the state’s third and fifth-largest districts respectively, will charge students to ride school buses if their budget reduction packages are approved.

High school teachers in Aurora will teach an extra class during the upcoming year. Schools in Cherry Creek would change their start and ending times to reduce bus routes and save money. Pay freezes and furlough days are topics of ongoing negotiations in many districts.

“We really tried to preserve, as much as we could, the classroom teachers and that classroom experience,” said Adams Five Star spokeswoman Janelle Albertson, echoing sentiments in other districts. “But there is no doubt that the domino effect has been put in place …

“A lot of the support systems that support classroom teachers, those have been cut – counselors, deans, assistant principals. For example, a classroom teacher who may have had a discipline issue with a student … now that teacher has to deal with it themselves. That means time away from teaching.”

State and district officials warn that even deeper cuts could come for the 2011-12 school year.

Unprecedented cuts in state funding

Virtually all of Colorado’s 178 school districts face an unprecedented 6.3 percent cut in education funding under this year’s School Finance Act, expected to be signed into law soon.

While some economic indicators may show growth, governments tend to lag in recovery. In Colorado, where 43 percent of the state’s general fund is spent on K-12 education, that fund is still reeling from the effects of lower income and sales tax revenues, courtesy of the recession.

The 6.3 percent cut comes on top of state-imposed rescissions of 2.3 percent in the 2009-10 school year. For Jeffco schools, for example, that 2.3 percent hit meant the district had to give back $13.1 million.

When was the last time the state cut school funding by 6 percent or more?

“Never,” said Vody Herrmann, head of the Public School Finance unit at the Colorado Department of Education.

On average, the 6.3 percent cut equals a reduction of $254 per student – or $146 million statewide.

But most districts are facing bigger deficits than the 6.3 percent alone. Their fixed costs – utilities, fuel – continue to increase and other big-ticket items – retirement contributions, medical benefits – seldom decline.

Federal stimulus dollars have helped some districts but not all. Douglas County, for example, was among nine districts in the state that received no additional Title 1 dollars because of the relative affluence of its families.

And in a state where dollars follow students, districts grappling with declining enrollment on top of the budget cuts may be hardest hit. Littleton Public Schools, while continuing to post some of the state’s highest test scores, has seen its student count drop steadily if slightly every year for at least five years.

In the past two years, the district of 15,753 students has closed two elementary schools and cut 32 school-based jobs such as teachers and classroom aides. It’s chopped its central administrative staff by 30 percent, its business office staff by 30 percent and its warehouse staff by 40 percent.

For 2010-11, potential reductions include eliminating district support for dental insurance, reducing another 58 school-based positions, trimming some administrators’ pay by up to 25 percent and imposing three furlough days for all employees.

Many jobs lost, but some found

In several large districts, teaching positions make up half or fewer of the jobs to be reduced.

Douglas County’s total of 380 positions to be eliminated includes 190 teachers on one-year-only contracts and another 190 mostly clerical and support staff in the central office and schools.

The 188 positions expected to go in Adams Five Star includes 24 classroom teachers and 67 teachers not assigned to a specific classroom, such as instructional coaches and librarians.

In Cherry Creek, only 15 of the 155 positions to be reduced are teachers and those were not specifically assigned to classes. Spokeswoman Tustin Amole said they will be returning to the classroom.

“All of these budget reduction proposals are designed to protect the classroom,” she said. “We are not talking about increasing class sizes, we are not talking about laying off teachers.”

In addition, Amole said the normal cycle of attrition – resignations, retirements and other departures – will cover all but a dozen or fewer of the job losses.

Other districts also reported attrition would take care of many, though not all, reductions. For example, Albertson, in the Five Star district, had the unhappy task of notifying two employees in her department that their jobs were being eliminated.

And in Dougco, with 380 jobs likely to be eliminated, the district is estimating 150 workers will not be able to find other positions in the district, according to communications director Susan Meek.

At least one district is adding teaching jobs in 2010-11.

Denver Public Schools, in facing the 6.3 percent cut, kept its per-pupil allocations to schools flat. That resulted in a 3 to 4 percent drop in real purchasing power because the average teacher cost in DPS is rising.

But the district also gave schools some additional flexibility in spending and its poorest schools reaped the benefit of $3 million more than expected in Title 1 dollars.

The result – schools chose to reduce clerical jobs and classroom aide hours and added 33 teaching jobs over 2009-10.

Brett Fuhrman, DPS chief financial officer, said the district is benefiting from annual enrollment increases in recent years and a pension refinancing that has funneled more dollars into classrooms.

But he also pointed out that the district previously endured years of cuts, including closing three schools in 2008, and is “really coming out the other side as a result of our reform efforts.”

Seniority rules trigger teacher domino

While districts have until June 30 to finalize their budgets, most have moved forward with proposals related to employees so they can make staffing decisions for fall.

The rule of thumb in many districts is seniority – state law doesn’t require a district to show cause for dismissing teachers with fewer than three years of experience so they’re often the first to go.

In Jeffco, where 71 of the 137 jobs on the elimination list for 2010-11 are teachers, those losing their jobs are all expected to be on one-year-only contracts – meaning they’re in their first three years of teaching and they’ve accepted an assignment meant to last a single school year.

But as districts make decisions about who goes, it can trigger a domino effect. Eliminating an assistant principal’s position means that person, who typically holds a teaching license, gets to return to the classroom so a less experienced teacher is displaced. That teacher may displace another, and so on.

In Aurora, savings already approved by the school board include cutting a school administrator at each of the city’s secondary schools and reducing assistant principals at the middle schools by half.

Kari Allen, the district’s’ chief personnel officer, has been working to place those employees in other jobs and to find places for 16 veteran teachers who’ve lost positions because of enrollment shifts or changes in program, such as requiring high school teachers to teach a sixth class next year.

“We’re trying to do all of our hiring within our own staff,” Allen said. “We value what they have already contributed to our district. We want to keep them here.”

Meanwhile, 144 Aurora teachers in their first three years of teaching have had their contracts non-renewed. Of those, 117 teachers are on one-year-only contracts and 27 had their contracts non-renewed for budget reasons.

Those 144 can vie for the 115 teaching vacancies expected in Aurora next year. Because even as districts reduce teaching jobs, normal attrition means they are likely to have some positions to fill.

Raising money by raising student fees

The unprecedented budget cuts sent many districts into talks with their communities, from town hall meetings complete with slide shows to online surveys asking families which reductions they could stomach.

About 3,500 people attended meetings in Jeffco as the district talked about possible school closures, which resulted in a January board vote to close one elementary for 2010-11. In Cherry Creek, where the plans are less controversial, more than 1,000 turned out for meetings or responded to an online survey.

In Douglas County, the district this week will begin the first of three meetings to talk about a proposed $1 per day fee for students riding school buses.

Already, the school board has approved a $25 per student technology fee for grades 1-12 in fall 2010 and $20 to $50 increases per sport for middle and high school athletes.

But the transportation fee proved the least popular in a community survey. Of 14,679 respondents, between 80 and 88 percent said they would pick technology and athletic fee increases over other budget options. Only 51 percent gave that same approval to a transportation fee.

No sizable Colorado districts now charge students to ride buses but the budget crunch has prompted numerous questions to state officials about the possibility.

“It appears that collecting transportation fees is an increasingly popular idea,” wrote Adam Williams, with the CDE’s school finance unit, in an email sent Friday to all districts that sets out legal guidelines for imposing such fees.

Among them: Only students who use the service can be required to pay the fee and any fee must be waived for students qualifying for federal lunch aid, an indicator of poverty.

Adams Five Star is proposing a $10 per month fee for students who ride buses. The district also plans to increase athletic fees by 25 percent, increase high school parking fees by $20 and add a $15 technology fee for middle school students.

“We have paid close attention to our neighboring districts to make sure that we are still within a reasonable market for those kinds of things,” said Albertson, the district spokeswoman.

In Cherry Creek, as in several other districts, the district would require students to live a bit farther away to qualify for bus service. Middle school students, for example, would have to live 1.5 miles from school to ride the bus instead of one mile.

And Cherry Creek would change the starting and ending times of its schools, which it staggered in 2006 to better accommodate the sleep patterns of adolescents, to reduce the number of routes and drivers needed. The amount of instructional time would not change.

“We realize it’s going to be hard for some families but when their child gets to the classroom next year, it will look exactly the same,” the district’s Amole said. “They will feel no difference in instruction and opportunity and we think that’s the most important thing.”

Grim predictions for future budgets

Herrmann, with the CDE, declined to estimate possible budget cuts for 2011-12.

“I don’t know how much worse it will get,” she said. “It depends on so many things.”

Federal stimulus dollars will expire after next year. A part of Amendment 23 that adds a 1 percentage point increase to annual inflation for K-12 funding also ends in 2011. So does Referendum C, which allows the state a five-year reprieve from revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.

Some observers are calling 2011-12 a “cliff year” for education funding and warning of even deeper cuts than in 2010-11. Senate MajorityLeader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, estimates that projected state revenue shortfalls for 2011-12 could force a cut of $300 million in state K-12 support.

But “there is some recovery that is occurring,” Herrmann said. “I don’t have the crystal ball to tell you.”

Many districts are bracing for a worst-case scenario. Jeffco officials have put together a proposed budget reduction plan for 2011-12 that cuts $27.9 million and 318 jobs, including 152 teachers.

“We are anticipating 2011-12 will likely be worse than 2010-11 as far as revenue reductions,” said Lorie Gillis, the district’s chief financial officer. “In the state’s budget for 2010-11, they’ve had to use some one-time dollars to cover ongoing expenses and those dollars are not available for 2011-12.”

That’s not a criticism of the state, Gillis said, simply reality. Jeffco also will lose the $12.5 million in economic stimulus dollars it’s been receiving annually. Already, the state’s largest school district is slated to pull $25 million from reserves to balance its budget in 2010-11, along with $14.1 million in cuts.

Jeffco’s reserves are relatively plentiful – they’ll total $141 million even with the $25 million taken out – and Gillis said tapping them is a planned “spend down” in the face of economic uncertainty. Other districts are digging into their fund balances too, with Aurora already approved to pull $5 million and Cherry Creek expected to use $2 million.

Still, for those districts and others, a key piece of their budget planning remains uncertain. Districts are currently in negotiations with their unions, with many talking about pay freezes and furlough days. Officials would say little about progress.

“How that compensation might look and whether furloughs would be part of that package are still in negotiations,” said Cherry Creek’s Amole.

In Douglas County, savings of $6.8 million from a salary freeze and three furlough days – each worth $1.1 million – are factored into the larger budget proposal to save $40 million in 2010-11. Any freeze or furloughs negotiated with unions would be applied to all employees, Meek said.

Some districts, such as Cherry Creek and Aurora, have seen the budget blows somewhat cushioned by tax hikes for operating dollars approved by voters in 2008. Douglas and Jefferson counties lost their bids for increases that year and there is talk in both districts of returning to voters this fall.

Gillis said any recovery is likely to be slow.

“We’re the largest piece of the state budget,” she said of K-12 education, “and governments do lag in recovery. The state is going to need those income tax revenues to go back up, those state sales tax revenues to go back up …

“It’s not going to turn around overnight. It took us a few years to get here, it will take us a few years to get back out.”

Check out Education News Colorado’s one-stop budget info center for a database showing the 6.3 percent cuts by district and the latest news about how school districts are grappling with the reductions.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org or 303-478-4573.

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