School funding on chopping block

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter must be getting tired of his Dr. Doom persona. Every few weeks, it seems, he somberly announces new plans for carving huge chunks of money from the state budget.

Unfortunately, Ritter has had little choice but to release his budget-cutting alter ego. As state revenue and revenue projections continue to plummet, Colorado must reduce its spending to meet its constitutional balanced-budget requirements.

What’s surprising, but necessary, in the proposed cuts Ritter announced this week is that kindergarten-through-12th grade public education would take a substantial hit — $260 million — under the governor’s proposal.

It should be noted that this latest budget plan is for the state fiscal year that begins next July 1. And, unlike emergency cuts that Ritter made earlier this fall to account for the loss of revenue in the current year’s budget, the Legislature will have substantial say in what is ultimately cut. In fact, the governor’s budget is only a recommendation, which the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee can ignore if it chooses.

But lawmakers would be foolish to ignore Ritter’s budget proposals. For one thing, they ceded most of the carving duties to the governor for this year’s budget when they failed to make substantial cuts themselves. Also, as we have repeatedly said, Ritter and his staff have made a sincere effort to distribute the budget-cutting pain across state agencies and throughout Colorado.

Heretofore, K-12 education has largely been spared the budget knife, at least in comparison to the massive cuts seen in places such as higher education. But, as Ritter noted, K-12 education makes up 43 percent of Colorado’s general fund outlays. It’s unrealistic to believe the largest portion of the general fund pie should be off-limits to cuts.

And, if that means some technical language is required to get around the ever-increasing K-12 funding mandates of Amendment 23, so be it. Voters never envisioned the current budget crisis when they approved Amendment 23 in 2000.

All that said, however, people should be aware that the proposed education cuts will have real impacts here in Mesa County. District 51 School Superintendent Steve Schultz and the school board are preparing to cut more than $8 million from next year’s budget. That may mean furloughs for district employees, cuts in travel and other expenses, and tough contract negotiations with the Mesa Valley Education Association. The aim is to limit the effects on classroom instruction as much as possible.

But Schultz fears that if the state budget situation worsens, and District 51 has to make even deeper cuts, it could harm efforts in the classroom and instructional programs, even as the district fights to improve academic performance.

Like Schultz, we hope that doesn’t happen. We hope revenue projections due out next month, and again early next year, don’t require the governor to don his Dr. Doom garb once more — that they show state revenue is at least stabilizing, if not improving.

If that is not the case, education in this valley will suffer. District 51 and every other school district in Colorado are handcuffed by state budget rules and have very few options for raising money.


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