Education one of a few bright spots in grim economy

The employment outlook in a spiraling economy is dicey at best.

Education is forecast to weather the storm fairly well in Colorado as the rest of the state settles into a recession in 2009, but the outlook for the education sector in Mesa County is a bit of a mixed bag.

Colorado’s economic future is a grim picture, according to economist Richard Wobbekind of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. He predicts unemployment will rise from 5.5 percent at the end of 2008 to 6.5 percent in 2009.

Local education is one of a few industries projected to increase jobs, Wobbekind said, by adding the bulk of 4,400 government jobs projected to come in 2009.

District 51 budgeted for an additional 26 teachers and staff for the 2008-09 fiscal year. More than half of the new positions will be teachers and will bring the total number of teachers employed in District 51 to 1,140, up from 975 teachers in 2004-05.

“Any employment growth we have is based on additional students in the district,” said Melissa Callahan deVita, the district’s executive director of support services.

More than 800 new students this year brought additional per-pupil funding, Callahan deVita said, and require new staff to teach them, so the additional teachers have been hired.

The district’s primary revenue sources are from local property taxes and state funds, she said, and the state is projected to be in a deficit as job losses eat away at tax revenues.

“I don’t know what the magnitude of that is or what impact that will have on schools,” Callahan deVita said.

Property values in Mesa County have not plummeted as in other parts of the state, so she expects the district’s revenues to remain stable.

The state also helps fund higher education, and Mesa State College is monitoring closely the state’s projected shortfall, said John Marshall, vice president of student services and outreach.

“Obviously, we’re very cognizant of the fact that the economy is sluggish,” Marshall said.

The college is examining the need to fill all new and vacant positions, Marshall said. It is putting off filling spots that aren’t “mission critical to the institution” until the school has a better sense of the direction the state is going, he said.

The University of Colorado, Boulder, added at the end of October an additional level of review in the hiring process. It addresses the need of filling vacant or new positions funded at least in part through the school’s general fund.

“For those general funded positions that are not urgent and critical in nature, hiring decisions should be postponed through the end of the calendar year,” CU Provost Phil DiStefano said.

Colorado State University instituted a similar action at the end of September and froze the hiring of all noncritical classified, administrative professional and staff positions.

Sluggish economies can motivate people to enroll in post-secondary education to jump-start their careers, and that sends tuition dollars to schools. The state, meanwhile, is not required to fund higher education.

Colorado is faced with at least a $100 million shortfall, and an economic forecast set to be released today could reveal an even bigger deficit.

“We’ll get a better sense of what we can expect (today),” Marshall said. “The bottom line is that we’re going to be giving a hard look at where every dollar we have is going.”
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