AURORA – They could have been spending their winnings from Oscar bets or dishing with friends about the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.
Instead, nearly 100 parents, teachers and community members gave their Monday evening to the cause of advising Aurora Public Schools board members on how to deal with losing $512 per student if Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2011-12 budget proposal becomes law.
The so-called “budget town hall” for the state’s sixth-largest school district is likely to be replicated in some form across Colorado in coming months, as 178 school districts grapple with the biggest proposed hit to K-12 funding – a total of $332 million – that anyone can recall.
Of course, that’s what they said last year too.
“It is truly the worst budget crisis that Aurora Public Schools has ever faced,” a stern-faced Superintendent John Barry told the group, then added, “We said that last year … ”
The figures may change – last year’s cut in Aurora was $17 million, this year’s target is $25 million – but the process remains largely the same: Grasp the extent of the proposed cut, compile a wide array of possible trims, survey your community and staff about the options they despise the least, proceed cautiously to board budget vote in May.
“We have been doing this for four years,” Barry said. “It is a heck of a way to run a school district.”
State cuts take districts back several years
Hickenlooper’s proposal would drop K-12 education funding to levels last seen in 2007-08.
Click on graphic to enlarge.
Since then, as the U.S. economy hit bottom, state lawmakers have taken chunks out of school spending – first by changing the interpretation of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional amendment requiring education funding increase by inflation and enrollment, and then by the more expedient method of outright cutting total education program funding.
That means 2011-12 will likely be the fourth year that K-12 spending has not received what the original interpretation of Amendment 23 says it should. In fact, by that measure, Hickenlooper’s proposal is $836 million short.
Total program funding, the combination of state and local funds used to pay for basic school operations, dropped from $5.6 billion in 2009-10 to $5.4 billion this year. It would further drop to $5.1 billion in 2011-12 under the governor’s plan.
“41 percent of the state budget is in K-12 education,” Hickenlooper told reporters in releasing his proposal Feb. 15. “It’s where the money is … There is no choice.”
Impacts vary by individual school district
The impact of all that has varied by school district. Littleton Public Schools, which also faced declining enrollment in a state where funding is doled out per-pupil, instituted staff furlough days.
Douglas County reaped the benefits of growth until lawmakers chose not to fully fund enrollment increases. Last year, Dougco became one of two large metro-area districts to begin charging students to ride the school bus.
Aurora’s budget situation is neither particularly bad nor particularly good in comparison to other districts.
“We’re basically back to where we were in 2006,” Casey Wardynski, the district’s chief finance officer, told the audience, noting Hickenlooper’s plan means “we’re at about $1,000 per student less than we were in 2009.”
One of Aurora’s key moves to cut $17 million for the current year, or 6 percent of the district’s operating fund, was requiring high school teachers to add a sixth class. The move saved $2.6 million but incurred the wrath of some teachers.
“We’re still trying to make a decision about legal action” against the district, teachers’ union president Brenna Isaacs said Monday. “We believe it was a breach of contract.”
Barry contended the district showed teachers are a priority because the district held on to all non-probationary teachers who wanted to stay and because all teachers received a pay raise, though only 62 percent of district staff did.
“The board clearly made it a prerogative,” he said, motioning to seven school board members seated on stage throughout the two-hour meeting. “They know where the tip of the sword is and it’s in the classroom.”
Budget cuts highlight differences in priorities
If tough budgets strain relations between districts and staffs, they also can highlight a difference in priorities between teachers and parents.
More than 1,200 parents responded to Aurora’s budget survey, listing staff furlough days and increasing the employee share of health care premiums among their top five of 40 potential savings options.
In contrast, among 1,454 staff surveyed, the most favored option was implementing early retirement. Increased insurance premiums made the “least favorite” list.
And some teachers winced at suggestions made by parents and community members during Monday’s town hall, including asking educators to volunteer to teach the district’s 23-day summer session known as Fifth Block.
Isaacs said she wasn’t surprised by the responses from parents or staff, including teachers’ apparent lack of outcry over possible furlough days.
“Teachers are recognizing, if there’s going to be pain with regards to these cuts, they feel it needs to be not only shared but visible,” she said. “Students and parents would have to recognize why they’re not in school.”
Barry said some ideas used in other districts won’t work in Aurora. Its high-poverty rate makes it unlikely that charging for busing is a viable option. Furlough days, which could save about $1 million per day, may be more feasible but there are questions about how to implement them equitably since some staff work 180 days and some work 260 days.
He likened the budget process to the game of “whack-a-mole” – many of the options relate and figuring out one piece over here can cause another issue to surface over there.
And, just like in the game, there’s a time limit.
“We’re getting really close to the point where we have to make some decisions,” Barry said.