The Douglas County School District is poised to adopt its 2020-21 budget this month, but the school board is still weighing how to make millions in cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff presented a budget update at the June 9 board meeting, this time with a closer look at what local school districts can expect in state funding.
Officials now can more confidently estimate the district’s budget deficit will fall near $31 million, or a 6% reduction in per pupil revenue, Budget Director Colleen Doan said. Staff on May 26 had estimated the deficit could land anywhere between $30 and $60 million as they presented a proposed $666 million budget.
But it remains unclear how the Douglas County School District will bridge that gap as board directors dissect a laundry list of possible cuts recommended by district staff before a June 23 vote to adopt the budget.
The Colorado legislature introduced the Public School Finance Act on June 4, with a base per pupil funding of $7,084 and 1.95% inflation, according to Doan’s presentation. The bill would reduce some grant funding but not among any programs used by the Douglas County School District.
The measure passed the state Senate June 11 after earlier passing the House. It was sent back to the House for concurrence on amendments.
The state also released the fiscal note and set the budget stabilization factor, near doubling the factor from the 2019-20 school year and bringing it to its highest point in the past decade, Doan said.
“The budget stabilization factor really is key in understanding how much money we are going to have,” Doan said.
Public school districts in Colorado receive funding from numerous sources but mostly the Public School Finance Act, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The budget stabilization factor is a factor in the school finance formula created by Colorado’s legislature following the Great Recession, according to the Colorado School Finance Project.
The tool reduces funding for school districts proportionately and reduces state aid, balancing the state budget.
Doan said the state education department ran all districts through the proposed budget formula so they know what to expect should the bill become law.
“It actually is still more favorable than we were originally contemplating last month,” she said.
Board directors deliberated well into the night June 9, ending their meeting just shy of 1 a.m., as they listened to potential ways the district could slash central department budgets to help keep cuts away from schools.
The department cuts totaled roughly $16 million.
Board director Elizabeth Hanson grew visibly frustrated mid-way through the meeting as staff revealed some of the cuts in their presentation risked throwing the district out of compliance with state or federal law.
Superintendent Thomas Tucker said staff would not recommend any cuts that garnered noncompliance. Staff was presenting possible cuts in line with the board’s desire to focus on central departments, not students or the classroom, he said.
The board had on May 26 asked staff to return with recommendations that shifted more of the burden onto central departments and away from high-risk or vulnerable students.
Tucker vowed recommended cuts would be made crystal clear before budget adoption on June 23.
Staff also suggested weighting student funding among schools based on their number of pupils in five categories: free and reduced lunch, students on individualized education plans, students on 504 plans, gifted learners and English-Language Learners.
Doan said they are now recommending an all-staff furlough of two days, instead of the three they suggested on May 26, with an additional three days for central administrators.
Chief Human Resources Officer Amanda Thompson presented options for an early retirement payout and health insurance premium supplement program, although the district does not know yet how many employees would qualify or have interest.
That data affects how much the program would cost and save the district and will be presented June 23 after staff are surveyed, Thompson said.
Thompson estimated the district has 111 licensed employees who would qualify, all making more than $80,000 a year. Each would be paid between $10,000 and $13,000 in the program, saving the district roughly $70,000 for each employee it did not replace.
Staff on May 26 presented roughly a dozen ways the district could slash spending but removed five of the options by June 9.
Among those was a recommendation to reduce funding for special programming, which drew swift and fierce opposition from students in the district’s International Baccalaureate program.
Kyle Lewis, a 2020 graduate of Douglas County High School, feared the cuts would eliminate the IB program altogether. He started a Change.org petition urging directors to protect the program.
Lewis used a burning building as an analogy for how he viewed the first round of possible cuts.
“That analogy is that if I have the chance to run inside and grab something,” he said, “running into this burning building of a budget, I would grab the IB program.”
Tess Johnson, 17, a rising senior at Douglas County High School, echoed Lewis. The IB students at DCHS are a tight-knit community, she said. Her biggest concern was how cutting IB funding would affect seniors like herself, who had already put in a year’s worth of work into the two-year program.
Aside from the rigorous workload that comes with IB — a year-long research paper, evening meetings — the program teaches her lessons outside of school too, she said.
“IB has encouraged me to be more active in my community, to find more ways to participate in the things I am passionate about,” she said.
While special programming is no longer a budget cut recommendation, reducing or halting overtime, additional pay and salary raises for employees is still on the table.
That proposed cut was a concern for 17-year-old Ethan Reed, a student activist, supporter of the teachers’ union and rising senior at Legend High School.
Reed worries cuts to compensation will affect morale among teachers and the quality of education students receive in the classroom.
“They do such a wonderful job and so I believe they deserve this, and I would definitely include overtime pay, because many teachers do spend a lot of time at their school,” he said. “They put their time into being teachers and so it’s important they are getting paid for their work and just the quality they put out for our schools.”
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