Governor targets schools for cuts

Hickenlooper’s proposal would set a lower spending baseline

DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper called Tuesday for historic cuts to public schools that will place “almost inhuman demands” on teachers and government workers, he said.

Added to cuts that former Gov. Bill Ritter proposed last November, K-12 schools would lose $500 per student next school year, and colleges would lose $877 per student, compared with this year’s funding.

Currently, the state spends an average of $6,813 per pupil.

State workers would see further pay cuts, and senior discounts for state parks would be eliminated as part of the plan Hickenlooper announced for the 2011-12 budget, which starts in July.

Ritter already proposed a 2011-12 budget, but Hickenlooper said a worse-than-expected economy and a desire for a conservative budget with more money in reserve forced him to ask for additional cuts.

“The four-letter word today is ‘math.’ We have a structural imbalance to the budget,” Hickenlooper said.

The state has fallen $1 billion short every year in its approximately $7 billion budget since the recession hit – a mismatch of revenue and expenses that Hickenlooper calls a structural gap. Ritter’s policy was to fill the gap as best he could with federal stimulus money and cash from savings accounts.

Hickenlooper made clear Tuesday that he intends to make permanent cuts that will eliminate the structural gap after two years. Most of Tuesday’s cuts will set a new, lower baseline for future years, and schools should not expect their budgets to bounce back next year.

Republican legislators, in general, lauded Hickenlooper’s plan.

“What you’ve presented here, I think, is a realistic and honest appraisal of where we are,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the budget committee.

But the governor left his fellow Democrats stunned, and some of them scolded him publicly Tuesday.

“My guess is the per-pupil spending (cut) will take us close to the bottom in the country,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. “The continuation of cutting our way out of this is not going to work.”

The Legislature will get a chance to approve Hickenlooper’s plan or make changes, with the main debates scheduled in late March and early April. All cuts will take effect starting in July.

It will be up to each school district to decide what to cut, and Hickenlooper said the new budget doesn’t necessarily have to cause layoffs.

But Jane Urschel, deputy director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, disagreed, noting that most school districts spend 85 percent of their money on employees.

“It’s a people industry. So there certainly will be cuts to teachers. There’s no way to avoid that,” Urschel said.

The cuts will total about $2 million for Durango School District 9-R, said Laine Gibson, chief financial officer of the district.

To help soften the blow, the board will most likely realign mill levy dollars, Gibson said. Voters approved the mill levy increase, which will bring the district $3.2 million annually, in November.

Major cuts to staff, for example, may not be as drastic as they would have been without the money, Gibson said.

The school district will still feel the blows of Hickenlooper’s new budget proposal, though.

“It’s going to cost us, it’s basically doubling the cuts we made last year,” Gibson said.

Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of Ignacio School District 11-JT, said the cuts will put the district in an even tougher position when it comes time to create next year’s budget.

“Just like everyone else, $500 per kid is a lot to lose, and I know it will have some kind of effect on hiring,” Fuschetto said. “We’re going to start working on the budget in next couple months and every line will be looked at.”

The state is requiring more of the schools, but isn’t sending the necessary funding to complete those goals, he said.

“We want to keep going with our programs and offer more opportunities for kids, but at same time we get our funding cut,” he said. “How do you balance those things?”

Colleges were already facing steep cuts, and they would see an extra $36 million cut under Tuesday’s plan.

For Fort Lewis College, it means $577,000 less than college leaders had expected.

“We think we’ll be in reasonable shape with this amount. We have been budgeting really conservatively,” said Steve Schwartz, the college’s vice president for finance and administration.

Although K-12 schools would suffer the most under Hickenlooper’s plan, it has plenty of pain to spread across the state.

State employees will have to divert 4.5 percent of their paychecks into their retirement accounts, compared with a 2.5 percent cut in Ritter’s plan.

The plan leans heavily on savings accounts for local governments. Legislators are fighting this week about whether the natural-gas and oil tax accounts should be used to balance the state budget or for their original purpose – making grants to local governments and water projects. Hickenlooper’s plan takes $65 million more from the accounts than Ritter was proposing.

Other notable reductions Tuesday include the closure of the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Bent County, closing Bonny Lake State Park near the Kansas border and “repurposing” three Western Slope state parks – Paonia, Sweitzer Lake and Harvey Gap – to be managed with reduced services.

Also, the plan would end the 50 percent discount that senior citizens get on state park passes.

Hickenlooper plans $57 million in additional cuts to health-care programs like Medicaid, including an extra 0.5 percent cut to the pay of doctors and nurses who provide health care for the poor.

The state budget should expect cuts of the same magnitude in 2012, although not necessarily to schools, warned Hickenlooper’s budget chief, Henry Sobanet.

“We’ve used our savings account to pay our ongoing expenses, and the savings account is now gone,” Sobanet said.

jhanel@durango Herald Staff Writer Emery Cowan contributed to this report.