School budget cuts not as easy as they look, District 51 says
District 51 administrators, teacher representatives and School Board members have repeatedly said everything is on the table when it comes to potential budget cuts next year.
But cutting some budget items would put the district at risk of making its diplomas worthless, losing federal funding or breaking numerous laws.
The district could technically get rid of special education services and save $14.39 million in annual general fund spending. The federal government requires the district to spend that money in exchange for an additional $8.86 million in federal money that can only be spent on special education services.
Cutting special education, though, would mean the end of that federal funding and would violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the No Child Left Behind Act and anti-discrimination laws. On top of that, it could lead the state to drop the district’s accreditation, which would make District 51 diplomas close to useless, according to District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita.
“We can’t touch any of that for reductions,” DeVita said.
Also untouchable if the district wants to maintain accreditation are graduation requirements, administration of the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, and compliance with a series of newer laws. Those laws require districts to create plans to meet CSAP achievement and growth standards (Senate Bill 163), evaluate teachers with a new set of criteria (Senate Bill 191), and train teachers to offer a test that will replace CSAP and teach to new state curriculum standards (Senate Bill 212). No tax revenue has been set aside in those bills to pay for them.
District 51 School Board Vice President Leslie Kiesler, who provides legislative updates for the board, said she lobbied against legislation with unfunded mandates for years. She said legislation has made schools responsible for children’s diets, exercise and health, in addition to their education.
“I’m not saying they’re not important. They’re terribly important. But our job is to educate,” she said of some of the ideas in bills.
Kiesler said some people may not understand which budget items receive funding for one purpose only and cannot be shifted to cover other costs, such as the money for special education. The district also receives millions in grants each year that must be spent on specific items and monitored in a way that proves the district spent the money as directed.
The district cannot shift money for charter schools because that money is simply passed through the district to the charter school. The district also cannot use money for free and reduced lunches in any other way because that money arrives as a federal reimbursement for the amount the district spent to provide those meals. Title I federal dollars must be spent at schools where more than half of students receive free or reduced lunches and the funding has to be above the amount the school would get from the district’s general fund if that money did not exist.
The district is also legally required to provide gifted and talented and English Language Learner (ELL) programming and gets state and federal money to do so. Staffing and running those programs can require additional money from the general fund, Kiesler said.
“You can’t have ELL without someone to oversee it. We can’t have special education as required by law without having someone in charge of that or you get in the position we found ourselves recently,” she said, referring to the district’s recent overturn of a correction plan ordered by the state to make the district’s special education plans for children legally compliant. The district’s student services executive director led that overturn effort.
The examination of areas where budget cuts are possible may be moot in 2012–13. In light of a rosier revenue projection last week, Gov. John Hickenlooper requested legislators leave education funding intact for 2012–13. A month earlier, he suggested cutting $89 million from education. District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said he’s planning on cuts until he hears a more definitive prediction.
Schultz said items required by state and federal law “are off the table.” But some mandated items may be impacted in indirect ways, he said, such as a potential decrease in the number of interventions the district may offer as a way to offer students extra help and see if they need special education.
“We may not eliminate things 100 percent, but reductions may impact how effectively we do certain things,” he said.
Salaries, jobs, sports, building budgets, transportation and other items are still on the table, with a few exceptions. Transportation, for example, is a required service, but only for special education or special needs students. The district will spend $4.6 million on transportation this year and receive a $1.2 million reimbursement from the state for travel between home and school. De Vita said she’s not exactly sure how much the district would spend to only transport special needs students.
“It may be something we start to examine,” she said.