Struggling Districts Continue Deep Cuts
For years, the word "cuts" has been associated with school districts all over the state and the country. Millions in shortfalls have come to be expected year in and year out.
But this year in western Colorado, things look to be turning around.
While some districts continue to face difficult decisions, others are preparing to spend more. And, the six biggest organizations on the Western Slope are even talking about giving their teachers a raise.
Last year, Garfield Number 16 School District dealt with its lowest enrollment numbers since 2005. A lack of funding tied to student count forced the district's School Board to freeze salaries and leave 18 positions empty.
"When I first got here, we were the fastest growing school district in the state of Colorado," Superintendent Ken Haptonstall said last year. "Two years ago, I think you could have counted us as the fastest shrinking school district in the state of Colorado."
In light of the gloomy budget picture, Haptonstall asked for a pay-cut, lowering his salary from $127,720 in 2010 to $126,698 in 2011. And unlike his one-time $51,500 bonus last year, there were no stipends handed out in 2011-2012. There was, however, a wage adjustment of $1,000 for all full-time employees and $500 for part-timers and Haptonstall was included.
The focus quickly turned to upcoming budget cuts at Garfield Number 16. But after student numbers rebounded a bit, the district still faces $211,835 in cuts ahead of next fall.
To offset the shortfall, the district has adopted a four-day school week and will dip slightly into its reserves.
Farther east on I-70, Garfield's Re-2 School District is expecting a slight increase of students for 2012. But to address $1.2 million in budget cuts ahead of the school year, it is also going to a four day week.
The move saves about $500,000 and leaves $700,000 to be cut.
"To me, it's probably our most positive option," School Board President Chris Pearson told us in March.
To make up the rest of the shortfall, the School Board is eliminating after-school programs, turning off cooling systems in school gymnasiums, offering early retirement, and reducing district administration position by 7.1%.
In the process, though, the district will not have to close any schools and will not lay anyone off. "It couldn't all be on our staff, the community has to absorb some of it," Pearson said.
Heading into 2011, everyone, including Superintendent Susan Birdsey, saw their salaries frozen for the fourth year in a row.
In Glenwood Springs at the Roaring Fork School District Office, staff is happy not to cut anything heading into 2012.
After a painful $3.6 million cut going into this year, including 80 layoffs of full-time and part-time staff, district leaders are celebrating a narrow margin victory on a non-expiring mill levy override.
"It will bring in an additional 4.5 million dollars each year," Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Shannon Pelland explained.
The 54% approved mill levy override, we're told, guarantees that funding forever and allows the district to not only avoid layoffs and school closures but hire on more staff.
In fact, because of the mill levy, the district was able to reverse $300,000 in furlough days planned for staff this year.
"It's made a tremendous difference for us," Pelland explained. "It's allowed us to add back some 15 to 16 teaching positions we cut last year and some custodial positions."
In 2011, RFSD's Superintendent Judy Haptonstall kept her salary frozen for the fourth year in a row. "It was actually something that she decided," Pelland said.
"Her original contract had an escalation clause in it and she opted not to take any of those things because other staff salaries were being frozen."
After enduring two years of challenging budget cuts, Haptonstall is not returning to see more funding. Her contract was terminated by the School Board earlier this year after a disagreement between community members and the superintendent over her firing of popular elementary school principal Sonya Hemmen in 2011.
RFSD's School Board is currently finalizing an offer to a candidate for the superintendent position.
Farther south in Montrose, district leaders are the only other of our six profiled districts not cutting a dime ahead of next year.
"It's a huge relief to the whole organization," Superintendent Mark MacHale said. "Even several months ago we were looking at a pretty significant cut."
MacHale is new to the district this year and knows his organization dodge a bullet when more-than-anticipated funding came down from the state.
Still, Montrose County is looking at a $400,000 shortfall but will use some of its reserve funding to offset the cost.
"We've been saving for a rainy day and it's pouring outside," MacHale described.
Also using some of its reserves, the district plans to hire four new teachers to help with class sizes, five Reading Interventionist/Academic Coaches, and one technology staff member.
"My crystal ball is pretty cloudy; all indicators coming out of Denver look like we're in a slight climb in the state," MacHale said. "So, we are cautiously optimistic that we won't get another cut."
"We wouldn't be spending money if we weren't confident that the picture was starting to stabilize."
District leaders expect student enrollment levels to remain the same.
MacHale's salary of $135,000 will remain frozen next year and comes in $1,102 less than his predecessor, Dr. George Voorhis, who earned $136,102 in 2010.
In Delta, Dr. Jerre Doss takes over the task of cutting over a million dollars from last year's superintendent, Mike McMillan.
Facing a $1.2 million shortfall for 2012, district leaders hope staff turnover, administrative re-organization, and small, temporary cuts to programs like Special Education will help meet that figure.
"Those cuts are less difficult than people," Dr. Doss said. "For the most part, those have not impacted our programs. They may impact purchase of new equipment for next year and some of the supplies."
The district will move forward with one layoff in its Technical College program and will not fill an additional five positions. It does expect student enrollment to remain the same.
Dr. Doss' salary, which started in February at $500 dollars above his predecessor, covers rising benefit costs and is frozen for next year, he said.
In the largest school district on the Western Slope, Mesa County's District 51, the numbers still are not nailed down.
"We hope to present budget to the Board on May 22nd," Communications Director Christy McGee said last month.
Looking at anywhere between $2 million and $4 million in cuts ahead of 2012, the district hasn't publicized its final decisions but has announced what is off the table.
In March, four-day weeks and school closures were nixed as possible budget cut measures going into 2012. But after failing in it's bid for a mill levy, District 51 is now hoping less staff with help offset the cuts.
District 51 School Board members hope retirements will help cut over $1 million. the district has also started to eliminate teaching and support staff positions.
Additionally, we're told the Board has approved a 15% cut in administrative staff levels.
District officials won't publicly comment on those cuts until they are publicly announced at an upcoming budget meeting. But Superintendent Steve Schultz, who saw his pay decrease in each of the last two years to $147,116 in 2011-2012, has already waived his contractual raise for 2012-2013.
"I will not take any increase in compensation while we're asking employees to sacrifice or the community," Schultz told us in May of 2011.
District 51 did not provide us with projected numbers of enrollment and staffing for 2012-2013 following our requests.
Taking into account the cuts seen around western Colorado and some of the stabilization, some are shocked to find out that every single one of the districts we've profiled is considering raises for district staff.
At Garfield Number 16, district officials have approved the use of roughly $320,000 in reserve funds to pay for a 3% raise district-wide. Superintendent Haptonstall will be see more money as well with a bump of his salary from $126,698 to $131,522.
In Rifle at Garfied Re-2, a 2.5% raise has been approved for all district staff which is also increasing Superintendent Birdsey's salary from $135,000 to $138,375.
A 3.5% raise has also been approved by the Roaring Fork School Board. It is also expected that the new superintendent will see a higher salary as well. "It's the first wage increase our staff have seen since 2008," Pelland said.
Montrose and Mesa counties, meantime, are currently negotiating with teacher unions. It is expected that both unions will see a raise for 2012.
In Delta, district leaders have allocated $203,000 to offer its teachers a one-time bonus next year.
But none of the superintendents for these three districts are expected to see any of that money.
"This is three years in a row without an increase for them, so far," Dr. Doss said. "It impacts morale; it impacts everything we do."
Even with raises likely in all six of these school districts, administrators are cautioning the public to refrain from thinking the budget cuts are over.
With uncertainty at the state level, district leaders say it's almost impossible to accurately project what kinds of cuts they will be facing this time next year. No one could defiantly tell us how long these raises would last.
"We're in trouble," Pearson said of Garfield Re-2. "I mean, the entire state is in trouble. It's not just our communities."
Every school district profiled in this article provided the information requested, but because of busy schedules our requests for timely interviews with district leaders from the Garfield Number 16, Garfield Re-2, and Mesa County school districts were declined.
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