Personnel costs are biggest budget issue for District 51
By George Rau
Last month’s election for a mill levy increase to support local schools was fascinating to watch. I’ve rarely seen a public issue as strongly supported by such a broad mix of our community leaders and media — liberals and conservatives — be so strongly defeated.
It would be easy to conclude that the defeat was due only to an anti-tax sentiment in the electorate, but that’s too simple.
Yes, perhaps some voted against it because they were “stingy” or didn’t care for our community’s children or our valley’s economic future. But I doubt this was the main factor because most of those who opposed Referred Measure 3B probably give donations regularly to other child-based charities that they support, such as the Girls Scouts, Partners, etc.
I believe that underlying the negative vote was a broad disrespect for our public educational system, a feeling that our tax money for education hasn’t been well-spent and more money was not going to solve the problems of high drop-out rates and mediocre, at best, educational quality.
Just as it took the 1980s and 1990s for people to slowly realize that U.S. cars had become inferior to Japanese cars, and forced American companies to improve their products, it’s taken a long time for the U. S. public to realize just how inadequate our public schools are.
Much of the public now believes that throwing more money at public education for the last several decades hasn’t given us any significant improvements because important structural changes weren’t being made.
It is also true that a community can’t continue to cut funding and still have even a mediocre program, unless it’s willing or forced to re-design its educational model.
As our local school board and administration look at ways to make the reduced District 51 budget work, of course they’ll look at the easy choices such as turning down the thermostats, charging higher fees for sports and other extra-curricular activities, revising busing routes, etc. None of these will matter much because most of the budget, about 82 percent of the district’s expenses, are salaries and related costs.
To reduce salary expenses, District 51 has two basic difficult choices. It can reduce staff and shorten the school year further.
This has been the approach of the past, due to the existing union contract, which has protected older teachers with tenure and seniority while sacrificing younger and newer teachers without regard to their value to the school system.
However, the district can’t continue to cut staff too deeply because it needs a minimum number of people to run the schools. It also can’t cut too many more days before it runs up against the Colorado required minimum school year of approximately 160 days.
Additionally, cutting staff and school days, although it might work financially, would be enormously detrimental to our children’s education.
Another approach would be an across-the-board salary cut for District 51 staff, without reducing the school year. Of course, this would be difficult financially for the staff and would require a restructuring of the union contract, but would perhaps be fairer overall to everyone who works for the district.
Salary and income reductions would be painful, but they have been the norm the last three years for most Grand Junction workers — including employees, the self-employed and business owners — during this deep recession.
Clearly, there is no easy answer for our school board as it grapples with the budget shortfall. If, however, board members’ primary concern is the best interest of the children, as they have so often stated, that should be the key criteria determining their decision.
Hopefully, our community leaders who so strongly supported 3B will get behind the best solution for our children and will give our school board and administration the support they’ll need to make the hard decisions that are now inevitable.
Just as this recession has forced many of us to become more thrifty and efficient with our personal finances, perhaps this financial crisis will have a silver lining of causing our school board to creatively move in new directions regarding staff salaries and benefits to give our community and our children the quality education they deserve.