District 51 begins planning for severe cuts for 2010-2011 school year

When it comes to cuts, K–12 education has long been known as an untouchable sector of the Colorado budget.

That isn’t likely to be a true statement next year, when legislators will have to find billions to cut, said Melissa Callahan DeVita, executive director of District 51 support services. Callahan DeVita also sits on the state’s interim school finance study committee. Taking any more money away from higher education or health care could cost the state precious federal dollars, she said. She anticipates $160 million will be taken out of next year’s K–12 fund, with possibly $3.6 million being sliced from District 51.

That’s why the district is planning ahead even earlier this year. The budget process usually starts in January and is adopted in October of the same year. This year, though, District 51 began discussing its budget for the 2010–2011 school year in July. District leaders also are gathering suggestions from personnel at each school and have begun discussions internally and with community groups about budget issues.

“We’re trying to keep ahead of the curve instead of waiting,” Superintendent Steve Schultz said. “These numbers could get worse. We want to protect instruction as much as possible.”

Timing is one thing the district has going for it. Another is reserves — 5 percent of the district’s expenditures go to a reserve fund.

Schultz said districts had worried about a funding shortfall in 2011, in part because Referendum C will expire that year.  Referendum C has required legislators to increase school funding by inflation plus 1 percent each year.

That won’t matter as much if that 1 percent isn’t available for 2010-2011, Schultz said.

Amendment 23 will continue to mandate school funding increase by inflation each year, but the interpretation of that rule may shift, Callahan DeVita said. Instead of increasing total funding as legislators have done in the past, legislators may focus on the root of the amendment and just increase base funding by inflation.

That would leave funding based on the number of employees and at-risk students a school has, with an area’s cost of living being taken out of the equation.

The school district has its guesses on what will happen next year, but no one’s sure exactly what will happen, Callahan DeVita said.

“They are truly in crisis mode at the state level,” she said.

“We’re waiting with everyone else with bated breath for the release of the next quarter (state budget prediction),” Schultz said. As for adjusting and anticipating budget moves, “It’s going to be an ongoing process.”


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