School district ponders financial future

In his superintendent report presented at Tuesday’s Archuleta School District 50 Joint Board of Education meeting, Mark DeVoti provided a glimpse of the district’s future that mirrors the national economy — somewhat bleak and pessimistic.

With Gov. Bill Ritter’s announcement on Jan. 29 that $70 million would be cut from Colorado K-12 education funding, school districts are scrambling to determine where best to tighten belts and cut waste.

Although the U.S. House and Senate continuing their wrangling over an economic stimulus bill, and congressional leaders saying they want a bill before the president for signing by Monday, it remains unclear how the bill would supplement state education funding. In a bill passed Tuesday, Senate Republicans cut $40 billion in education funding from an original $79 billion proposal to help states pay education costs while trying to balance their own budgets. However, how much remains for education funding will probably not be known until the final bill is presented to President Obama.

Uncertain how much stimulus funding money would make it to district schools, DeVoti said the district needs to prepare itself for hard times.

“I’ve asked each building to look at their budgets and see where they can trim back. Are there programs we need to cut or, at least, cut back on?”

When asked if the idea of a four-day school week was back on the table, DeVoti replied, “A four-day school week is just one thing on a laundry list of ideas we’re looking at and it’s not off the table. Obviously, a four-day school week presents some real problems for some parents and the community but we need to consider all our options.”

Despite assurances from Ritter that stimulus package money could possibly fill the gap in education funding, DeVoti said he was not counting on those funds, for the moment.

“There’s just not a lot of information on the plan right now,” he said, adding, “It will affect us, we just don’t know how much.”

Indeed, after Ritter announced the education cuts, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) informed the district of a rescission regarding its per pupil operating determination — the state equalization funding — to the tune of $36.25 per pupil, a total of $57,628.

“We can’t be positive that’s the amount,” said district Business Manager Janell Wood, “It’s what we’re anticipating, though.”

Another source of worry for the district is how state funding is determined by enrollment and how local economic conditions have led to a decrease in that enrollment. Previously, the state has allowed districts to average enrollment across a range of three to five years, allowing districts to use the number most beneficial to the district. Unfortunately, for the district, recent changes instituted by CDE reduced that range to three years. “We were at our highest enrollment five years ago,” said Wood, “Obviously, that’s going to hurt us.”

Although the district only lost 19 students (by an October 2008 count) from the previous year — a year which saw the potential loss of 100 students — the district has continued to bleed students as families leave Archuleta County for greener economic pastures. The continued reduction in enrollment will mean further cuts to district funding, a situation made more painful by the cuts announced by Ritter.

Nonetheless, DeVoti was confident that the district would answer any future financial crisis with resolve and positive mettle. Pointing to the district’s response to a diminishing pupil count, when it budgeted for 2008-2009 based on a projected loss of 100 students, while only losing 19 students, he was confident the district would weather the worst of the storm. Articulating the district’s strategy for an uncertain future with unknown challenges, DeVoti said, “We don’t want to be reactive, we want to be proactive.”

jim@pagosasun.com