No soft targets in District 51 budget crunch


Funding tied to performance

A 2008 study by the Colorado School Finance Project, a legislation-created data collection group funded by Colorado education associations, found intervention programs increase student achievement. The study also found states that had increased funding, such as Kentucky and Maryland, showed increased student performance.

Four of the six states that spend the most per student on education — New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut — rank in the top five for states with the highest fourth-grade reading scores. Three of the states that rank in the bottom four for education spending — Mississippi, Nevada and Arizona — rank in the bottom five for fourth-grade reading scores.

Not every state follows the money trail to good grades, though. Some states don’t spend so much on students but have high reading scores, such as Iowa, North Dakota and Ohio.

Colorado ranks 28th in the nation for education funding and 46th in education spending as a percent of personal income. But the state is first in the nation for students per 1,000 scoring above 24 on the ACT and above 1,779 on the SAT college entrance exams. Colorado ranks 17th in the nation for average eighth-grade reading scores and 20th in average fourth-grade reading scores.

District 51 funding

District 51 has received increases in student funding each year for the past five years, but it remains one of the lowest-funded school districts in the state. The district is tied with 10 other Colorado school districts.  All 11 have received the same amount of funding per student since the passage of Colorado Senate Bill 199 in May 2007.

2005–06: $5,719 per student.

2006–07: $5,865 per student.

2007–08: $6,275 per student.

2008–09: $6,550 per student.

2009–10: $6,855 per student.

Cuts this big tend to leave a scar.

School District 51, already facing budget problems for the 2009-2010 school year, faces an $8.3 million shortfall for 2010-2011. About $2.9 million in technology, program and reimbursement cuts likely to be made this year will be repeated next year.

With 82 percent of the district’s budget going to instructional support, salary and benefits, there’s not much more room to trim behind the scenes, District Support Services Director Melissa Callahan DeVita said.

“We are going to cut things that impact kids,” DeVita said. “The thing is: How do we make cuts that impact the least amount of kids?”

Intervention programs to help below-average and above-average students stay interested and up to speed in school are often the most beneficial programs in a school. They’re also some of the most expensive, DeVita said.

“Those programs for kids that are on the fringes, those are the things that get cut first,” she said.

The District 51 board first adopted the 2009-2010 budget in June. On Dec. 15, the board will consider adopting a budget that has been revised because of spending cuts that district officials are proposing for this school year.

Schools often delay maintenance and simple repairs after budget cuts, according to Fred Wall, an adjunct professor who teaches about school finance at Mesa State College. Then come transportation cuts like moving bus route boundaries further away from schools, he said.

Transportation could face a slice from the budget ax in District 51. The only requirement of school districts is that they provide school bus transport to special-needs students, but District 51 buses any child who lives two or more miles from school. The district may consider charging for busing, but DeVita worries some students will stay home if that happens.

“The problem is there’s people having trouble feeding their families. Do you think they’re going to pay to send their kids on the bus?” she said.

Budget cuts don’t have to slice too deeply to affect employees, Wall said.

“Eighty to 85 percent of all costs for a school district are in teachers, aides, bus drivers, all personnel. There isn’t a lot of room to make reductions without affecting employees,” he said.

If positions are eliminated, it’s usually the ones farthest from students that go first, such as administrative posts, he said. If teachers go, it’s usually non-tenure teachers that are “the most current and up-to-date, training-wise” that leave first, Wall said.

“It sure can” affect student performance, Wall said.

Administrators and school board members met with Mesa Valley Education Association members last week to discuss teacher pay, a negotiation process that usually happens in April or May. Teacher cuts haven’t been discussed as a likely possibility, but MVEA leaders will discuss possible pay cuts or furlough days with teachers.

A 1 percent salary cut to every employee in the district would save $1.1 million, DeVita said. If teachers went without pay increases for gaining another year of experience on the job, it would save $2.5 million.

Changing school lunch prices won’t help much. Beyond the rising number of students receiving free and reduced meals in District 51 (the number is now over 40 percent), lunch proceeds don’t benefit the general fund.

The district has applied for grants, but the awards won’t fill the multimillion-dollar gap, DeVita said, and grants often must be used for specific purposes, such as playground repair.

Wall said Colorado’s education woes are a sign the state is catching up to others that entered the recession sooner.

“We will be getting the effects that states like Michigan felt a year or two ago,” Wall said.

The pain isn’t over for the Great Lakes State. Michigan parents held bake sales to raise money for schools this week to send a message to protest a cut of $292 per student in education funding in the state. Nearby states Indiana and Ohio are also considering public education cuts.


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