Graduation exercises for Nikola Tesla Educational Opportunity School were held on Thursday, May 24, 2018 at Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus. See gazette.com for more galleries from local high school and college graduations. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing

Last-minute additions to state funding for public schools have improved the outlook but not erased the painful budget decisions underway for Colorado Springs School District 11.

The net loss of 1,008 students last school year — the largest year-over-year enrollment drop — led the Pikes Peak region’s oldest and largest school district to cut nearly 100 employees, close an alternative night school and make other adjustments.

But the situation is not as bad as originally thought, officials say.

The $256.3 million budget that the seven-member board of education is set to approve Wednesday night is not nearly as dire as projected in the preliminary budget a few months ago.

More than 100 positions on the block as Colorado Springs School District 11 looks to trim up to $11 million

“Where this year’s budget started with some very difficult conversations regarding budget reductions, we are pleased that in the end, with the help of the Colorado Legislature, the district was able to shift that conversation away from budget reduction to a realignment of expenditures,” said Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson.

The cuts, as Superintendent Michael Thomas says, will “right-size” the budget, set a sustainable footprint and enable the district to “think strategically on how we want to grow and in what areas.”

While D-11’s enrollment has been declining for more than a decade, staffing has not followed suit, Thomas said, which compounded this year’s difficult choices.

Instead of needing to cut up to $11 million from the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, D-11 received an unexpected $10.7 million in state funding, after lawmakers agreed May 5, the last day of the session, to make full-day kindergarten funding retroactive for districts like D-11, whose state revenue is based on five-year averaging enrollment.

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The School Finance Act also included more money for students with severe special needs and a larger than expected buy-down of the negative factor, education money that the state funneled to other sectors in recession years.

“At one time, we were projecting netting close to zero out of the School Finance Act,” Gustafson said.

With cuts announced, district leaders over the past month looked at restoring money to layoffs that would have affected classrooms, he said.

“The main thing we backed off on was teacher cuts,” Gustafson said, which saved more than 30 jobs.

Professional development for principals and administrators also was added back into the revised budget.

Of the unanticipated $10.7 million from the state, $2.4 million went to charter schools, under Colorado law. An additional $1.65 million was funneled into the mill levy override pot from 2000, which has been paying for full-day kindergarten in D-11.

Two elementaries, Monroe and Twain, will be open early and late, 6 a.m.-6 p.m., offering a free enrichment program to compete with a new charter opening at The Citadel mall.

While the alternative Springs Community Night School will close this month, extended hours at Tesla Educational Opportunity School, also on the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus, will accommodate students ages 17-21 who need evening classes to earn a diploma, Gustafson said.

Employees will receive a 0.7% pay increase next school year. Teachers also will get a 2 percent boost for experience increments and 1 percent for educational advancement.

“Teachers recognize this is not the time to go trying for big money because there’s not big money available,” said Joe Schott, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, the collective-bargaining union representing D-11 teachers.

“Anything less than that would have amounted to a pay decrease and a loss in buying power. It was a collaborative decision to find what amounts to the sweet spot this year.”

Renovations under the $42 million mill levy override voters approved in 2017 are underway, Gustafson said, including upgrades such as air conditioning at Stratton Elementary, leaving 10 schools without air conditioning.

A new community-based health clinic will open in the fall at Mitchell High; new boilers will help keep Coronado High warm; and Doherty High is getting a new floor, among the projects.

Money from the 2000 mill levy override is designated for 13 specific items, and the 2017 initiative covers 10 areas of improvement. A citizen oversight committee will look at the 2000 full-day kindergarten funding and decide what should be done with it, Gustafson said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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