GOLDEN – December’s improved state revenue forecast was good news for the state’s school districts but as Jefferson County school board members heard Thursday night, the financial strains are far from over.
Lorie Gillis, the district’s chief financial officer, said cuts of $30 million to $35 million were expected for the state’s largest school district in 2012-13. Last month’s better budget outlook likely drops those figures to $20 million to $25 million.
But with another $35 million in cuts still expected in 2013-14, that means the district’s two-year reduction goal just moves closer to $60 million than $70 million.
So board members are still expected to vote on cuts such as reducing bus service, delaying new computers for classrooms, requiring staff to pay mandated increases in their pensions and eliminating hundreds of teaching jobs.
- See the list of possible cuts as prioritized by Jeffco’s citizens budget group
- Suggestions include cutting more than 400 teachers, librarians and counselors
And in direct fees for families, the costs of riding school buses and paying for tickets to athletic events are still likely to rise.
“Our economy is looking better,” Gillis said, but reminded board members that consecutive years of state K-12 cuts mean the district’s per-pupil funding still lags that of several years ago.
For example, in 2008-09, Jeffco was receiving $6,704 per student. This year, the district is receiving $6,286, or $418 less per pupil. And in 2012-13, Gillis said, the figure is projected to be $6,166.
Budget cuts on top of budget cuts
Jeffco, which has a general fund operating budget of $620 million this year, is dealing with some special circumstances. Its enrollment is declining, worsening its financial picture since student count largely determines state funding.
- 2010-11: $13.8 million
- 2011-12: $37.5 million
- 2012-13: $25 million
- 2013-14: $35 million
More than 87,000 students enrolled in the sprawling suburban district in 2000. Estimates for 2012 put enrollment below 81,000 and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said county birth rates are continuing to drop.
Gillis said enrollment declines could mean an additional hit of $3 million to $5 million next year.
Meanwhile, to cushion the financial blows, Jeffco has been pulling from its once-plentiful reserves – $24 million last year, $33 million this year, an expected $27 million in 2012-13.
And Gillis, who repeatedly described herself as “conservative,” is still projecting $35 million in cuts will be needed in 2013-14. School board member Jill Fellman, noting the recent uptick in the state’s economy, asked why.
“Because some fixes in earlier years were with one-time money,” Gillis noted of the state’s attempts to handle the Great Recession. She also pointed out that, “if everything held constant, we’re still spending reserves and we need to align our revenues and expenditures.”
Time to dig deeper into reserves?
Gillis expects the district will have to pull another $5 million from reserves in 2013-14 but can then build the reserve fund back up to a healthy $79 million by 2016-17.
But after last year’s tough decision to close two schools, cut all staff pay by 3 percent and trim two days from the school year, some board members questioned whether it’s time to get rethink their required bottom line.
All Colorado school districts must keep 3 percent in reserves thanks to a legal mandate known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. But Jeffco and some other districts, to be fiscally prudent, also have board-mandated reserves – in Jeffco’s case, it’s another 4 percent on hand in case of emergency.
Board member Laura Boggs, carefully describing her comments as discussion and not a proposal, noted other districts have begun relaxing their reserve requirements or using school buildings as collateral to meet them.
“If we eliminate that board reserve, the cuts we would make for next year wouldn’t exist,” she said. “If we’re willing to have a conversation about board reserves, it changes the conversation.”
Gillis said each 1 percent reduction in the board’s reserve requirement – say, from 4 percent to 3 percent – means another $5 million to $6 million. She sounded a caution.
“Yes, other districts are doing those things,” she said. “But … it’s important not just to follow the trends.”
Impact on instructional quality
Using a two-year plan, Jeffco citizen and staff work groups have prioritized a list of reductions totaling nearly $70 million and trimming staff by 590.
That $70 million appears to have been reduced to $60 million – though only state lawmakers can decide that for certain – but even the lower figure means cuts expected to hit classrooms.
“Across two years, we’re looking at between two and four more children in each classroom,” Stevenson told board members. “We’re now talking about first grades between 25 and 30 children if the worst-case scenario occurs.”
The list numbers 82 items and doesn’t hit classroom teachers until No. 61, or after nearly $25 million in other cuts. To achieve $60 million in cuts, however, it calls for reducing 194 elementary teachers, 33 middle school jobs and 130 “licensed staff” at high schools. Licensed staff typically are teachers but they also can be counselors, social workers or other staff.
In addition, to reach $60 million, the list calls for cutting 44 teacher-librarians at elementary and middle schools, 17 middle and high school counselors and 20 instructional coaches.
Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County teachers union, said it it likely any positions cut could be achieved through attrition or non-renewal of temporary contracts, rather than layoffs. But that becomes less certain as the cuts get deeper.
The priority list isn’t final. Board members can use it or not – they’ll host community budget forums Jan. 28 and then public hearings in May and June, when a final budget vote is expected.
Click on “fullscreen” at bottom for a clearer view or see the document on the district website.