Jeffco Schools budget crisis pushed off to next year

State finance decisions, government aid will help district avoid drastic 2020-2021 cuts


Jeffco Public Schools is no longer expecting the tens of millions in budget cuts it was bracing itself for in 2020-2021, instead anticipating that government aid can cover a loss of funding, at least for this year.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, conversations around Colorado school finance grew increasingly unfavorable for district budgets. The trend culminated in news that Jeffco should prepare for a roughly $74.3 million decrease in state funding, district chief financial officer Kathleen Askelson told the board of education on May 13.

But on June 4, the state's School Finance Act was introduced in the House with reductions far below forecasters' worst fears. Jeffco is now expecting state funding cuts of only about $35 million, or $31.5 million after a portion of the cuts is absorbed by charter schools.

As of June 10, the act still had several steps to go before final approval but “the information that we're getting is it's unlikely these numbers will change,” Askelson told the board at a June 10 study session.

In the meantime, other adjustments have also impacted the budget, leaving the district short an expected $38.7 million, with similar shortfalls likely in the years to come.

This year, however, the shortfall can be offset by government aid funding related to the coronavirus.

The district plans to use $36.5 million in aid to offset the deficit, leaving only $2.2 million of the shortfall to be covered. This could be funded through the district's reserve fund, Askelson said, but it is likely that further grants will come through and cover the costs without the district needing to dip into its reserves.

However, Askelson highlighted that the numbers aren't final yet. There's uncertainty around several items, including whether there could be unexpected costs associated with starting school back up under new health regulations.

She and board members also highlighted that there is no guarantee that school districts will receive federal or state aid next year. If not, budget cuts would need to compensate for future deficits.

“This really is kicking our cuts down the road next year,” board member Brad Rupert said. “That is coming on our horizon and so that needs to inform our conversations.”

With these two caveats, the board spent a little time discussing budgeting priorities. A list of priorities was provided to the board by the district's Community Budget Advisory Committee, which unanimously determined that a cut to central departments would be most preferable, followed by a cut to capital improvement transfer and then a cut to individual school budgets.

If cuts to teacher compensation were necessary, the committee said it would prefer furlough days to other modes of compensation reduction.

Board members agreed with many of these asks but a few board members questioned the idea of reducing capital transfer.

The transfer is “designed to maintain the condition of our buildings,” board member Ron Mitchell said, so “when we get into cutting the capital transfer, I understand their recommendation but I would say we have to do that very cautiously.”

Rupert and board president Susan Harmon agreed, saying in their experience, cuts to capital transfer are rarely restored when better economic times roll around.

The board will adopt the budget at a special meeting June 17.


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