District 51 survey shows some budget opinions, realities differ
Students would have every Friday off and pay $10 to ride the school bus this fall if the majority of 3,050 School District 51 budget-survey respondents had their way.
When asked in November and December to pick their first choice among a set of potential budget cuts for the 2011–12 school year, 47.1 percent of people who took the district’s online survey picked a four-day school week over chopping three days off the school calendar or lengthening the school day and having longer vacations.
But the four-day week never happened. The District 51 Board of Education adopted a resolution in February saying the move could save as much as $2 million but was not worth making some parents scramble for day care, and it would be hard to reverse if funding returned in a year or two. The idea of longer breaks also was axed after the district found it would save only $600,000.
Next school year will be shortened by three days to save $1.8 million, despite 41.8 percent of survey participants listing it as their third choice.
So, why ask parents, employees and students for their opinions? District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita said surveys help the district understand how the community feels about budget cuts. But they’re not a vote.
“It’s one piece of the puzzle,” DeVita said.
Other pieces include comments on the district’s website, focus groups and a committee that studied the ramifications and benefits of a four-day school week.
Surveys “let people have a voice in the process,” DeVita said. But the process found after the survey that some options weren’t as savings-friendly as originally thought. The $10 charge for busing, for example, was the first choice of nearly 45 percent of survey respondents compared to four other transportation-related savings measures. And it would have saved $300,000 to $350,000, according to DeVita.
But, DeVita said, the district realized there was no way to enforce the charges without purchasing a new fee-management system, which would eat up most of the savings.
Two other areas with support from many survey-takers that didn’t make the cut for the 2011–12 cuts were consolidating teams across schools and charging higher fees for higher-cost classes such as art and music. DeVita said the fees are hard to adjust for savings because they vary by school and are often a school’s responsibility to charge, and consolidating teams would lead to some students dropping out of activities.
Although reducing school maintenance and cleaning wasn’t a popular choice among survey participants, the district reduced its custodial staff by 16 percent, mostly by scaling back on night janitors and pushing back the start time for some day custodians for 2011–12. That measure will save $690,000.
WHAT MADE THE CUT, WHAT DIDN’T
Survey participants got their way in some areas. Trimming the school year to 181 days ranked as the first choice of 52.6 percent of survey-takers when stacked against increasing the average class size by three students, reducing non-instructional support, and reducing employee pay.
Those other elements will be implemented as well, though, with the district increasing class sizes by one student to save $1 million, cutting non-instructional staffers more than any other sector, and reducing salaries by three contract days across the board.
Participants showed support for increasing fees for outside groups to use buildings, something that will happen and is expected to gain the district an extra $20,000 in 2011–12. Alternative funding for field trips, another popular choice, is being sought through parent-teacher organizations.
Survey respondents got their way in saving some areas that were not popular to cut. Lukewarm responses rolled in for ideas like having parents volunteer up to 12 hours a year per student and cutting grounds maintenance, something that had been done in 2010–11.
The survey showed little support for eliminating busing for activities or for all but special-needs students, eliminating middle school athletics or high school sports with few team members, or eliminating music and clubs with little participation. DeVita said school officials worried any removal of busing services would result in decreased attendance.
Getting rid of sports could hurt attendance or academic commitment, she said, because sports are the main motivation for some secondary school students to do well in school. She added taking away sports could violate Title IX, which prohibits denying access to sports and educational activities because of a person’s gender.
Taking away middle school sports would have saved $350,000. That figure is nowhere near the $60,000 saved by the only change to athletics and extracurricular activities for next year, which is a $40 increase in participation fees. DeVita said even those larger savings are still nowhere near the amount needed to fill the $13.6 million budget hole.
“Why would you chase these nickels and dimes and hurt kids?” she said.
MORE CUTS LIKELY NEXT YEAR
Some ideas pondered in the survey, including the consolidation of smaller schools into larger ones, remain in consideration for next year. Superintendent Steve Schultz said Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office at this point predicts cuts for the 2012–13 school year could be as large as those for 2011–12, at least from the state.
Jenny Hall, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Scenic Elementary, worries her child’s school may close in 2012–13 because of its small population, a possibility that has been discussed by the school board. She has a few suggestions for the district to keep the school viable, including busing kids from overcrowded schools on the east end of the Grand Valley to less-full Redlands schools and making all Scenic students bring a sack lunch to school instead of using the cafeteria.
She also favors charging for busing and going to a four-day week and raising money at the ballot box. School board members confirmed last week the district will begin asking residents this summer how they would feel about a mill levy override to help fund schools on the November ballot.
“I’ve never seen taxes as low as we pay here,” said Hall, who grew up in San Diego. “Property taxes have to rise here for us to have any schools.”
As far as this year’s cuts, Hall said she is concerned the elimination of 116 reading assistants in the 2011–12 budget will hurt local test scores.
Dawn Lang, the president of Fruitvale Elementary’s Parent-Teacher Association, is concerned about the cuts to school secretaries this year. She does not like that some classroom aides’ hours are being cut, and she thinks it would have been wiser to allow aides to work in multiple classrooms.
“The cuts, I think they had to happen, but there are probably other ways to do it,” Lang said.
Josh Warinner, a teacher at Tope Elementary and the father of two elementary students and a middle-schooler, said it will be harder for some teachers to do their job next year without the support of reading assistants and classroom aides. He is worried about what jobs could be next on the chopping block in 2012–13, including his job as a physical-education teacher.
“My worry is, as a specialist teacher, they’ll start combining teachers or start taking away specialized programs,” including art, physical education and music, Warinner said. “All kids need both movement and music.”
Grand Junction High School student Allie Dorsey, 15, agreed. She participates in volleyball and track and plays saxophone in the school’s band and jazz band. She said she hasn’t heard many students say they won’t be able to participate in activities next year because of increased fees. But she has had conversations about what future budget cuts could do to the activities she loves.
“Students talk about it, especially those in music, because they’re worried (the district) will take it out,” she said. “My argument is music is everything to a lot of people.”