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School board tackles budget options

Answering a budget shortfall that could amount to $1.35 million this year and another $1.15 million next year (by most estimates), the board of education for Archuleta School District 50 Joint met Tuesday to consider options that appear grim — and could grow worse.

Largely out of the public limelight (as opposed to last Thursday’s public forum — see related article), District Superintendent Mark DeVoti had no shine for the dilemma handed to the district from the state.

“We’re told to cut 8.97 percent from our budget, within the last two days,” he said. “That’s up from the 6.75 percent we started at a few months ago. It just keeps increasing.”

DeVoti did say he had been warned by the Colorado Department of Education to look for between 8 and 10 percent in potential cuts, adding, “We went somewhere in between.”

Stressing that all proposed cuts in the budget were preliminary, DeVoti added that cuts in the 2010-2011 budget, while painful, would not significantly affect the level of education offered to Archuleta County pupils; but he warned that deeper cuts in the 2011-2012 school year could have a deleterious effect on students and staff, if not mitigated either on the federal, state or local levels.

Among the largest proposed cuts in the budget, $615,700 comes from staff attrition — staff retiring but not replaced. DeVoti emphasized that, while some incredible talent was retiring, new talent was in place to fill the gaps. Furthermore, DeVoti reminded the board that, since enrollment had fallen over the past four years, class size would not increase. “We’ll be shuffling teachers around to fill spots,” he said, referring to moving designated math specialists at the elementary school level into full-time classroom roles and shifting qualified teachers from one school building to another.

Likewise, staff (teachers and administration) would be taking a cut in pay – a little over 1 percent, annually — through staff furloughs. Although the board was not sure when those days would be taken, midsummer seemed to be the best time. Those reductions in pay would amount to about $70,000 in savings for the district.

Other cuts proposed included:

• Personnel changes in administration through attrition or realignment: $85,000.

• Reductions in programs (summer school, except funded programs): $10,000.

• Reductions in contracted services, especially in substitute teacher pay: $25,000.

• Reductions in transportation costs: $23,800.

• Reductions in line items: $251,000.

• Reductions to junior high and high school athletics: $35,500.

While all items considered are contingent and subject to further review (DeVoti stated he would like another work session and another board meeting during March and before spring break), another $189,00 needs to be cut in order to make the nine percent goal that the district set for itself.

To those ends, the board indulged in some freestyle budget cutting (or savings). According to DeVoti, he had been approached by La Plata Electric Association regarding a number of ideas, including tying the high school into the town’s geothermal heating system and having an energy audit done on all buildings. Board directors Joanne Irons and Ken Fox brought up the notion of solar panels, referring to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money available for such uses.

Likewise, the board discussed pooling benefit efforts with other entities throughout the county to try and gain a better deal for insurance. Considering premiums have risen an average of 14 percent across the country over the past year, joining a larger insurance pool could benefit government workers across the board.

Irons said, “We haven’t seen, as a board, what the numbers are within each of these categories. We’re trusting the hard work that the administration has done.”

Yet, the proposed cuts, with no substantial reductions in force nor diminishment of existing programs, represents a tipping point: how the district survives the next year and another round of cuts will determine where Pagosa Country decides its priorities lie.

Later in the meeting, answering the concerns raised in the budget work session, the board passed a “Fiscal Exigency Resolution” which would, if needed, give the board latitude to eliminate as many as three teaching positions in the district.

“I don’t foresee us needing that,” DeVoti said in a later interview, “but it’s there if we have to use it.”

Unfortunately, faced with deep cuts this year and potentially deeper cuts next year, the board is painfully aware that the current situation may well move from being the exception to the norm.

“Next year, if there’s no mitigation,” DeVoti said, “We’ll be looking at a four-day school week, looking at closing the intermediate school.”

The board will hold another budget work session next Tuesday, March 16, at 4 p.m. in the Pagosa Springs Junior High School library. A special board meeting will be held Thursday, March 25, at 5 p.m. (in the same location) to finalize the district’s budget decisions.

jim@pagosasun.com