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Cuts proposed for area schools

From cutting staff to charging student athletes a “transportation fee” for attending out-of-town games, the school board of the Archuleta County School District 50 Joint considered tough decisions Tuesday as it met to figure out how to deal with a $1.35 million budget shortfall for the 2010-2011 school season.

“Everything I go through today is as far as I can go,” said District Superintendent Mark DeVoti. “If we have to do another million next year, Lord save us.”

The state has made districts aware that the 2011-2012 school year would most likely require districts like Pagosa’s to cut another $1 million or more from their budgets.

A prominent staffing cut proposed for the upcoming year would be the loss of the intermediate school principal Lisa Hudson, who agreed not to return next year. Other cuts, from support staff and teachers, would amount to a total of 15 positions.

Using attrition to cull staff (by not hiring to fill positions left through retirement or resignation), the district expects to save about $400,000 in salaries, benefits and pension costs.

While district staff appeared to be taking the deepest cuts, ideas for cost-cutting (or raising revenues) affected almost every aspect of the district.

One idea would be to change the high school schedule from a four-period block schedule to a five-period schedule. Another idea that would entail over 2 percent in salary reductions for teachers and staff was to extend Fridays to a full day (as opposed to the current half-day schedule). Additional hours of instruction added on Fridays would allow the district to cut three full days from the school year and use those days as furlough days.

However, board director Joanne Irons thought that just over 2 percent in salary cuts would not be enough and recommended 5 percent as a temporary measure. “If we’re going to ask for a tax increase and a mill levy increase, it has to be at least five percent if we’re going to go out to the community.”

Irons was referring to two proposals before the board, one seeking a half-penny increase in the town and county’s sales tax, the other requesting voters to approve an increase in the mill levy on property owners. While previous iterations of the mill levy presented to the board had included only two mills, Irons thought that an increase of five mills would be required to cover funding shortfalls.

Regarding deeper salary cuts, several teachers in attendance blanched. High school principal David Hamilton pointed out that Colorado was already last in U.S. teacher salaries. Likewise, director Ken Fox asked if furloughs along with a freeze on STEP funding (automatic pay raises for teachers) hadn’t amounted to 5 percent as it was.

It was DeVoti who, in an emotional display, stated his own opposition to a 5-percent salary cut for teachers. “I spent my first three years as a teacher raising my kids on WIC milk, WIC cheese,” he said. “It’s not right.”

While Irons defended her position, saying that the cuts would be temporary (but predicated on voter approval of tax and/or mill levy increases), she said she believed the cuts would be necessary to address next year’s budget shortfall “as a proactive approach.”

Irons pointed out that the district could be facing a reduction in per-pupil funding as it continues to bleed enrollment. According to the district’s business manager, Janell Wood, the district is down 11 students so far this year.

“I personally know 10 (families) leaving by the end of the school year,” Irons said, adding that, “Half are leaving due to work, with the other half leaving due to our education system.”

Cuts and revenue-raising proposals would also affect junior high and high school athletics, from reductions in salaries and coaching to charging student athletes a one-time $40 transportation fee (transportation accounts for about 53 percent of athletic costs).

In fact, the fee would not be restricted to athletics, but would include all extracurricular activities requiring transportation.

Also discussed was a proposed increase in gate fees for athletic events, from $2-$3 to $4-$5, a proposal that DeVoti said would raise an additional $30,000 for the district. Asked how the district compared in gate fees, Hamilton said that other districts throughout the state had been charging $4-$5 for several years.

While mentioned at previous budget work sessions, a “pay-to-play” proposal (charging students an activity fee for participation in extracurricular activities) was not mentioned at the meeting.

Overall transportation costs were addressed as well. Among the proposals, charging a $10 a month fee for bus service seemed to be the most popular as it would raise an estimated $50,000 for the district (students qualifying for free or reduced lunches would be exempt from the fee). Bus service would be cut for elementary school students living within a mile from the school, 1.5 miles for all other students. Eliminating transportation for high school student tutors (working with younger students in other schools) would save an estimated $28,000 in transportation and staffing costs.

Other changes would directly affect curriculum in the district. Scrambling to certify an online school (classes through the Internet for special needs students), the program would bring an additional $54,000 in funding. With science standards about to shift statewide, DeVoti said the district would be able to save $100,000 by not purchasing text books — the current editions of science books not meeting the new standards. Not renewing software licenses, pursuing server upgrades and other cost-cutting measures would save about $110,000 from the district’s technology budget.

Finally, about $200,000 from a capital reserve transfer would, according to DeVoti, make up for the difference not accounted for in spending cuts or proposed revenue-gaining measures.

With dozens of measures addressed at the work session — some amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, others saving just a few thousand —?the district will have a long laundry list of items to consider next Thursday, March 25, when it meets to approve its budget.

Noticeably absent from Tuesday’s work session were local parents, with only a handful in attendance. Although the board played to a packed room during a previous work session last month, those parents chose to stay away from Tuesday’s meeting. With a four-day school week and a proposal to close the intermediate school off the table (at least for next year), other details apparently have not been items of concern for local parents.

Nonetheless, local parents and residents can view proposed suggestions and spending reductions on the district’s Web site at www.mypagosaschools.com, then clicking on the “2010-2011 Budget Reductions” link.

The board will meet again in the junior high school library at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 25, to make a final decision on the budget.

jim@pagosasun.com