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Pikes Peak region school budgets show signs of slow recovery

June 1, 2014 Updated: June 2, 2014 at 7:27 am

Healing - but still facing a long road to recovery - is how local school officials describe proposed 2014-2015 budgets, which school boards will be reviewing and revising in upcoming weeks.

"We're not going to get well in one year," Glenn Gustafson, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, told Colorado Springs School District 11's board of education last week.

School revenues are on the upswing, but recover at a slow pace driven by state spending, property values and enrollment figures.

"Everybody's excited for it to happen right away, but it's going to take a while to come out of it," he said.

Tom Gregory, chief financial officer for Academy School District 20, said the question may not be when financial recovery for his district will happen, but if recovery will ever come.

"The reduction that the state started in 2010-2011 is still around, so all the reports that the Legislature fixed K-12 still means we're $23.5 million less than what the School Finance Act is supposed to provide," he said.

"My concern is will we really ever recover what we've lost?"

After Colorado voters defeated a ballot initiative last November to increase school funding by raising state income taxes, lawmakers focused on how to use improving state revenues to lessen the $1 billion shortfall in education funding resulting from the recent recession.

On the last day of the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers finalized a school finance package that increased K-12 funding by more than $400 million. The legislation also reduced the shortfall by $110 million.

Statewide average per-pupil funding will be $7,020 next year, compared to $6,839 this school year. The number is based on a formula that takes such factors as inflation and district size into account, said Mary Lynn Christel, a finance specialist with the Colorado Department of Education.

Still, district financial officers say per-pupil funding is far below where it's supposed to be under a 2000 state law known as Amendment 23, designed to reverse budget cuts to school districts in the 1990s. D-11 will receive $1,000 less per pupil than it should next school year, officials said.

"We're still spending and getting funded at 2008-2009 levels," Gustafson said.

D-11 lost $35 million in state funding due to the recession. But for the first time in eight years, D-11's proposed budget reflects an increase over the previous year. The district's total general fund, or operating budget, is a projected $229.3 million, up from $226.5 million this school year.

Most of that will pay for raises for employees, said Superintendent Nicholas Gledich.

"D-11's budget needed to be about compensation this year," he said.

Budget cuts meant years of frozen salaries. For the first time in five years, D-11's 3,700 employees will be eligible for salary advancements. And the last remaining unpaid furlough day is being restored.

In all, wages and benefits will increase by $9.8 million in 2014-2015, Gustafson said, bringing D-11's total compensation costs to about $172 million.

Compensation also gobbles up the majority of D-20's proposed budget, Gregory said, accounting for 80 percent of its $195.8 million operating budget for next school year.

D-20's 2,856 employees will see a nearly 4.5 percent increase in pay, Gregory said, for a total wages and benefits increase of $6.6 million. That will bring district spending on compensation to $138.7 million, he said.

D-20, the region's second largest district, is projecting growth of .5 percent in enrollment, or 150 students, Gregory said, which will require additional teachers.

D-11, the region's largest district, is expecting enrollment to decline by about 300 students next year, Gustafson said. Under a new plan to even out teacher-student ratios in both core and elective classes, 15 teachers will be removed from schools with lower enrollment and 15 teachers will be added to secondary schools with higher enrollment.

"We'll be looking classroom by classroom, to fix the ones that have higher student-teacher ratios first," he said. "It's a great way to address geographic and enrollment trends."

D-20's proposed operating budget for 2014-2015 is $10 million more than the current budget, but the extra revenue won't equate to new programs, Gregory said.

"It's more of a maintenance function," he said, "keeping up with insurance increases and inflation."

School budgets have lagged about 18 months behind the economic downturn in the private sector and housing market, Gregory said, and the same pattern holds true for recovery.

"It appears we've hit the bottom and are starting to recover, which we are just starting to feel in our budgets."

D-20's new budget is scheduled for board approval June 19.

Some school districts are not yet turning the corner. Woodland Park School District RE-2 remains in a budget-cutting mode, due to declining enrollment, according to Superintendent Jed Bowman.

He's anticipating a $300,000 reduction in the 2014-2015 budget, which goes to the board for approval June 11.

"The economic picture of the state of public schools is better than it's been in the past five years," Bowman said, "which is good news for all Colorado students."

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