Not many options exist for more money for District 51

Getting more money for School District 51 as it faces potential cuts next year would take voter support, a change in funding policy, donations or a little luck in the grant application pool.

When it comes to asking voters for a tax increase, school districts in Colorado have one option: raising property taxes. There are two ways to ask for that increase. One is to present voters with a bond issue that would pay off bonds with tax revenue to help pay for district operations over a set period of time. Another option is to ask for a mill levy override, which could raise the portion of property tax revenue going to local schools for a definite or indefinite period of time.

Superintendent Steve Schultz said a property tax ballot issue is out of the question while Mesa County’s unemployment rate remains above 9 percent.

“This is not the time to do it, not because it wouldn’t pass, but because it would not be the responsible thing to do to the community,” Schultz said.

If the economy changes, so could Schultz’s feelings on the subject. November 2011 would be the next time the school district could include a ballot measure, as override and bond issues are not allowed on April ballots.

Colorado pools state dollars with local property tax revenue to fund school districts. A district’s funding is determined by a formula that takes into account the local cost of living for district employees, the number of at-risk students in the district, overall district enrollment and the percent of district money allocated to salaries and benefits. The 16-year-old formula gives District 51 one of the smallest per-student allocations in the state. This year, it’s $6,471.52. The state average is $8,000, and the national average is $10,000.

Starting with a low allocation makes cuts predicted to be as high as $10 million next year more difficult to make, District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita said. The only way to change how much money the district receives without a property tax question, DeVita said, is for something to change in the funding formula.

The only other funding option for the district is to rely on the kindness of others. The district can apply for federal, state and private grants, but it has to meet certain criteria or agree to do certain things to be eligible for certain grants. That weeds some out of the running, but Schultz said the district is aggressively searching for and applying for grants, although in a selective manner.

The fate of certain parts of the district’s budget may rely on whether some of those grants come through, an extra reason the district may not know its full budget scenario for 2011-12 until April or May, Schultz said.

The District 51 Board of Education recently voted to adopt formation papers for a district foundation. The next step to get the foundation going is to file for and receive 501(c)3 status, something Schultz said may take up to a year. That status allows the district to pool donations and build interest for larger projects, rather than handing every donation over to the district’s general income pool. People can make donations in the meantime, but Schultz said the district currently receives goods more often than money.

If cuts must be made next year, DeVita said it’s not as easy as slashing whatever looks pointless to one citizen or another. Some spending is mandated, such as Colorado Student Assessment Program testing and the idea behind progress monitors. Federal funding for special education, immigrant and English Language Learner students, and Title I schools, which are the schools where at least 40 percent of students receive free or reduced meals, have to be spent on the mission for which they’re allocated.

Districts are not allowed to replace district funding for other items with money for Title I schools. Federal dollars are dwindling for educator training, technology training and mini-grants.

DeVita said the district does not specifically track how much of the budget is dedicated to mandated items.

Eighty-seven percent of District 51 funding goes straight to buildings, up from 83 percent in 2006-07. Money for buildings includes salary and benefits for school staff, text books, utilities, supplies, buses and other transportation. The remaining 13 percent is spent on building maintenance, groundskeeping and irrigation, finance, human resources, technology and district administration.


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