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Dougco decision: Black or blue?

Instead of being beaten black and blue by state cuts in education funding, the Douglas County School District will try to opt for one or the other.

The district unveiled two possible 2011-2012 budgets Tuesday night, a “blue” one and a “black” one. Both are in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2011-12 budget, which would slash education funding by $332 million.

For Douglas County, that equals $465 per student.

The blue budget is the more draconian measure and was called a “live within our means” budget by Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen. It would be implemented if school board members decide not to ask voters for a tax increase for operating dollars in November.

If the board agrees to seek additional funding from voters, they’ll use the black budget. In either case, the district will make up an expected shortfall of $25 million resulting from less revenue and greater pension and health insurance costs. But the means will differ.

Elements of “blue” budget

Under the blue budget, the single biggest chunk of savings would come from cutting per-pupil allocations to schools.

Elementary schools would receive $200 less per student while middle and high schools would receive $300 less per pupil, for a total savings of $13 million.

Another $5.6 million in savings would come from instituting four furlough days for district employees, according to Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief financial officer.

Other pieces of the blue plan include cutting $2 million from the central office.

“Black” budget uses reserves

Under the black budget, most of these cuts would be avoided because of the use of reserve funds, Betz said.

The district would pull $14.4 million from reserves to offset the expected shortfall in 2011-12.

Furlough days would be avoided and so would cuts in per-pupil allocations to elementary schools. Middle and high schools would still see $100 less per pupil. Central office reductions would still total $2 million.

The use of the reserve funds would be a one-time option to “get us through next year,” said Assistant Superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Considering a tax question

Board President John Carson said a tax question will certainly be considered, but the board took no action at Tuesday’s meeting except to release details of the two proposed spending plans to the public. Only four board members were present at the meeting, held at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch.

Betz outlined a potential ballot question that would cost $7.50 for the average homeowner in Douglas County, based on a home valued at $337,500.

If approved, the increase would bring an additional $20 million in 2012, growing to $27 million in 2015.

That additional revenue would void the worst-case scenario of the blue budget, Betz said.

Charting the financial need

Douglas County voters have twice declined to approve tax increases for operating dollars in recent years, said Susan Meek, the district’s communications director.

One result is the amount of funding from operating increases, or mill levy overrides, has decreased in Douglas County from $700 per student in 2004 to less than $400 per student in 2010, Betz said.

At the same time, the district has added more than 14,000 students and, with more than 56,000 students, is the third-largest school district in the state.

Betz produced a chart showing Douglas County, one of the state’s most affluent districts, receives fewer dollars than other large metro-area districts in state education funding, which takes factors such as poverty into consideration. In 2010-11, for example, Dougco is receiving $6,541 per student compared to Denver’s $7,232 – a difference of $691.

Add dollars that districts currently receive for tax operating increases into the mix, and the gaps between Dougco and some other districts are even greater. Dougco receives $7,123 per student in both state funding and mill-levy dollars compared to Boulder’s $8,676 – a difference of $1,553.

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