Misconceptions about District 51 budget color the process
By Greg Mikolai
Being a school board member comes with responsibilities and challenges that are not obvious to the general community member or taxpayer. The District 51 Board of Education has been challenged by the significant budget cuts the school district has been forced to deal with over the last four years.
Another great challenge the board faces comes from public criticism based upon misinformation and misunderstandings. While the board agrees that, as an elected body, its members should be held accountable for the decisions made, we would like to address some misconceptions that continue to float around the community as fact.
The misconception that the school district and board ignored the recommendations of the appointed Budget Development and Oversight Committee and other sources of community input is false. The budget presented on May 22 incorporated a number of recommendations from the committee: increase in transportation distances, increase in athletic fees and the reduction of some programs. In addition, the proposed budget included a larger than recommended reduction in administration.
Despite expressed opinions, the school board respects and appreciates the work of the committee for its efforts this year and for the road map it has drawn for budget reductions that may need to occur in the future.
This leads to the misconception that the board ignored input from staff, the community and the “Save Our Students” group to implement a four-day school week.
When originally faced with projected shortfalls of $6 million to $ 8 million in January, the four-day school week was one of many extreme measures considered to offset another round of huge cuts. In the best case, moving to a four-day week would save $1.5 million. In all likelihood the actual savings, with the four-day week model most strongly being considered, would be closer to $800,000.
In staying with the five-day week, the board took into careful consideration the better budget projections from Denver released in late March, the overall impact to the school district and Grand Valley community as a whole, and the disruptive effects on the district and community of implementing a four-day school week in the short time frame allowed.
The community needs to understand that no school district in the nation with more than 8,000 students has implemented a four-day school week, much less a district of our size at 21,000 students. Extrapolating the impact to student achievement from these smaller districts seemed suspect. The board received many emails, phone calls and personal contacts thanking members for not implementing a four-day week.
If the district still needed to find $8 million, as originally anticipated, to balance the 2012-2013 budget, significant staff and employee cuts would have been required even if the four-day week was implemented. Pay increases for any employees would have resulted in even deeper cuts to staffing levels district-wide.
The board does not regret agreeing to provide a pay increase to all staff for next year. It cannot be emphasized enough that MVEA and AFSCME have been strong partners during these difficult years of large budget reductions, taking cuts in pay and benefits. The board felt that low morale and the potential departure of our most qualified employees warranted a reparative approach. However, employee compensation is still below where it was before the economic downturn.
The board is correct in stating that the budget, prior to negotiations, did not include cuts to school staff. For the overall benefit and achievement of our students, the board felt that pay increases were appropriate with consequential adjustments in staffing.
Cuts to school staff and teachers in particular are never taken lightly. These cuts for the 2012-2013 school year will not result in large changes in class sizes, as the district’s enrollment continues to decline. At the elementary level, four teaching positions out of 600 are being reduced. Some elementary teachers will be moved to more crowded buildings to help alleviate larger class sizes. Average class size at elementary schools will not change from the current 24.75 students.
At the middle school level, reductions were not aimed at core subject (e.g., math, reading/writing, science and social studies) teaching positions. These class sizes should remain relatively flat moving into the 2012-2013 school year. At high schools, seven teaching positions were eliminated. These positions are estimated to result in an increase in average class size of less than one student.
Cuts in the current situation are not easy. They are neither the result of poor decision making by the district nor mismanagement of funds. Simply put, the budget reductions are due to declining tax revenue at the state level.
We appreciate the efforts of the Legislature to minimize the funding impact on K-12 for the 2012-2013 school year. However, District 51 is still underfunded by $25.5 million for next year, based on the state’s Constitution.
The simplest way to describe the decision making process is we had to pick among the cuts that hurt, the cuts that hurt more or the cuts that hurt most. District 51 is not in a place where cuts cannot affect the classroom or our students. Our only recourse is to choose the reductions that hurt the least.
District 51 comprises 21,000 students and 44 schools. The Board must look at the big picture when making decisions, not what benefits a single school or program. The greater good must be tantamount for education of these 21,000 students. That is no misconception.
Greg Mikolai is president of the District 51 Board of Education. He wrote this on behalf of the entire board.