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Districts facing another year of cuts

Spreadsheets are getting a workout as school administrators wrestle their 2012-13 budgets into shape and boards prepare to vote on the spending plans.

While the 2012 legislative session found the money to keep average per-pupil funding stable for the upcoming school year, many Colorado school districts still have to make cuts and dip into reserves to make the numbers work.

“We’re definitely seeing a reduction of programs,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research and advocacy group that tracks district spending. She also noted “a lot more pressure to use reserves.”

Rising costs are putting pressure on district budgets, and those aren’t covered by stable state and local funding of $5.3 billion, an average of $6,474.24 per student statewide.

Rainey and district officials point to three common cost drivers that are affecting districts – higher pension contributions, rising utility and fuel costs and increased health insurance premiums. District contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement Associations are going up .9 percent, for instance.

In addition to using reserves, the School Finance Project reports that districts are cutting spending on repairs and improvements, delaying curriculum purchases, cutting staff development, increasing class sizes, reducing graduation requirements and increasing fees.

The impact on staff salaries varies by district. Some are continuing to freeze salaries and reduce positions while others are able to offer modest increases. “They’re all over the board,” Rainey said of district approaches to pay.

The legislature was able to avoid another year of cuts by finding $57 million to fund enrollment growth, estimated at 1.1 percent, or about 9,000 students statewide.

“There’s a sense of relief” among districts, said Leanne Emm, director of public school finance at the Colorado Department of Education.

But the school finance act, House Bill 12-1345, didn’t provide funding to cover inflation, which legislative staff pegged at 3.7 percent. “That’s huge,” said Emm. Fully covering inflation would have cost $257 million, she added.

Annual school funding is calculated using the provisions of the 1994 school finance law and Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000. After statewide base funding is determined, support for individual districts is set using factors such as enrollment change, district size, numbers of at-risk students and regional cost of living. So per-pupil funding varies widely by district, from a low of about $6,000 to a high of more than $15,000.

The state revenue slump that hit in 2008 forced the legislature to create an additional calculation that’s used annually to reduce K-12 support to the amount needed to balance the overall state budget. Called the negative factor, that calculation reduced 2012-13 funding by 16.1 percent from what it would have been if the full terms of the 1994 law and Amendment 23 had been applied.

Use of the negative factor in recent years has cut an estimated $1 billion from total program funding for schools.

A look at key districts

While some districts, including Denver, have adopted their 2012-13 budgets, most are still working out the details. Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Boulder held budget hearings this week, and the Jefferson County board is expected to vote on its budget Thursday.

Some districts, including Douglas County, are still negotiating 2012-13 contracts with their unions.

Here are snapshots of the budget situation in the state’s 10 largest districts by enrollment:

Adams 12-Five Star – The district is looking to cut $12 million and is considering position cuts through attrition, salary cuts, furloughs and increases in some student fees. The current Adams 12 operating budget is about $295 million. The board held a budget hearing Wednesday night and meets again June 20. Budget information

Aurora – Administrators are planning for a $5 million cut and are considering use of reserves, pay cuts and furloughs, increased class sizes and bus fees. The current budget is $275 million. A public hearing was held Tuesday, and the final board vote is expected June 19. Budget information

Boulder Valley – The district was considering cuts of $5.7 million but has scaled those back by putting use of $2.5 million of reserves on the table. Budget plans were changed after public concerns were raised about the impact of cuts on high-needs schools. Cuts could include teacher and paraprofessional jobs through attrition. The current budget is about $276 million, and the school board votes on June 26. Budget information

Cherry Creek – This district is looking at a combination of savings and use of reserves to close a $16.4 million gap. The district is still negotiating with its employees, so personnel costs for next year are still up in the air. The current budget is some $416 million. The board vote is scheduled for June 18. Budget information

Denver – The DPS board already has adopted a 2012-13 budget that’s essentially flat at around $600 million, with no layoffs or furloughs but no across-the-board raises. Budget information

Colorado Springs District 11 – Facing the need for a $5.1 million cut, the district is considering significant position cuts, including 81 teacher slots, with resulting increases in class size. This year’s budget is about $209 million. A budget vote is scheduled June 27. Budget information

Douglas County – The district is considering how to make $18.1 million in cuts and is looking at administrative reductions, use of reserves and some middle and high school program cuts. The district still is in negotiations with its teachers. The board meets June 19. Budget information
Jefferson County – District administrators are proposing $20 million in cuts and use of $5 million in reserves to balance the budget, which will be decided by the board on Thursday. Proposed cuts include furlough days and pay cuts. This year’s budget is about $620 million. Budget information

Poudre – Administrators are proposing $2.6 million in various efficiencies and use of $1.5 million from reserves to balance next year’s budget. Current spending is about $214 million. The board vote is scheduled for June 12. Budget information

St. Vrain – An estimated $13.5 million in cuts is expected to translate into larger class sizes next year. The current budget is about $202 million, and a school board vote is expected June 27. Budget information

Looking ahead, several districts are considering proposing tax increases to the voters in November. Among those are Boulder, Cherry Creek, Denver and Jefferson County.