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No more easy education cuts

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Devin Maez, left, and Cameron Liddell read in Renee Sebestyen’s fifth-grade class at Bayfield Elementary School. Bayfield School District is considering cutting departmental and classroom supplies by 10 percent to save $40,000. Bayfield Elementary School Principal Diane Gardner said school administrators try to keep those cuts away from everyday classroom supplies by putting off longer-term maintenance. Devin is the son of Isaiah and Brooke Baker, and Cameron is the son of Anthony Liddell and Amy Williams-Liddell.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

Colorado educators breathed a collective sigh of relief this spring when news came that K-12 funding from the state would hold steady next year. But while flat funding is good, the budget process for local districts has been far from a breeze.

Durango, Ignacio and Bayfield school districts are considering budgets that include everything from cuts to classroom supplies and staffing to transfers from reserves.

“We need to make the hard decisions now,” Bayfield Superintendent Troy Zabel told school board members during an April budget discussion.

Meanwhile, the $3.2 million mill levy increase Durango’s voters passed in 2010 helped Durango School District 9-R avoid many of the harshest budget cuts during the last few years. But this year, declining enrollment will force the district to cut staff next year.

The district expects about 70 fewer students next year and plans to eliminate seven teaching positions to make up for the loss of students in the last few years, said Laine Gibson, the district’s chief financial officer.

The staffing cuts were most visible in the district’s decision to cut consumer and family science classes at both middle schools next year. At least for next year, the schools will not teach subjects such as cooking, independent living and sewing. Administrators were left without much choice, the middle school principals said.

“I have no interest in cutting programs,” Escalante Middle School Principal Tim Arnold told the board in April. But with stagnant or declining enrollment, both schools had to make tough decisions, he said.

All departments across the district also will be asked to cut 20 percent of their budgets next year.

In Bayfield, the district is looking at athletic fees and classroom cuts to make up a $200,000 budget deficit. The total budget is about $12 million. Board members are considering cutting department and classroom supplies budgets by 10 percent to save $40,000 and are considering implementing activity fees for the first time. High-schoolers who want to play on the school’s sports teams will be charged $50, and middle-schoolers will be charged $25.

Together those moves will save the district about $55,000, and it will dip into its cash-reserve fund for the rest, district Finance Director Amy Lyons said.

Meanwhile, Bayfield’s teachers won’t see any salary increases for the third year in a row.

The board also discussed posing a mill-levy increase to Bayfield voters in the fall to help cover teacher salaries and accomplish goals of the district’s forthcoming strategic plan, which includes a call for a technology teacher and career coach.

When tasked with making do with less money, principals at Durango and Bayfield said they try their best to keep the effects away from teachers’ supplies budgets, which sometimes requires putting off other maintenance.

“I have been trying really hard to protect that money for classrooms and teachers, but what’s happening is other accounts for furniture, desks, chairs – things that need to be replaced less often, we put off because there isn’t money for those,” said Diane Gardner, Bayfield elementary and primary schools principal.

Animas Valley Elementary Principal Lisa Schuba said the process requires some creativity.

But even with staffing and department cuts, Durango School District’s $38.5 million budget overspends revenues by about $775,000. Current projections show the district will need to tap into its reserve fund for the next five years, a fact that concerned members of the district’s financial advisory committee.

Committee members also worried how the district will continue to pay fees for special programs.

So far this year, the district has spent almost $240,000 on supplies, fees and professional development for International Baccalaureate and Expeditionary Learning programs.

Gibson agreed the district’s budget isn’t on an ideal track. There needs to be an overhaul of the entire budget with a committee that identifies budget priorities from the ground up rather than cutting a set percentage of everyone’s budget each year, he said.

Ignacio is the only local district not facing a budget deficit next year. Though state funding is declining, the district has benefited from a steady stream of Impact Aid, federal money that accounts for the fact that tribal lands are exempt from property taxes. Ignacio gets that money according to how many Native American students are enrolled in its schools. Last year, the district received $1 million, which accounted for 8 percent of its $13 million budget.

Even with a stable financial outlook, the district shifted money and made some cuts, said Anne Gundersen, Ignacio’s director of finance.

Teachers’ supply budgets will be cut, from $500 to $400, and the district is transferring money to the general fund from its food services and capital-reserves project funds. And though the district didn’t lose any staff positions this year, it eliminated five staff positions last year.

Shifting and scrimping helped the district create some rare good news for its teachers: 1 percent raises and scheduled salary increases across the board.

“I don’t think we gave up anything to have that,” Gundersen said.

Final budgets will come before each of the county’s school boards in June.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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