School budgets

School districts cut millions of dollars from the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, as they plan for students to return in the fall.

State funding cuts to public schools amounting to $621.4 million weren’t as deep as initially thought, but still are painful, say finance officials, who worked feverishly to submit  2020-21 budgets by June 30.

“It wasn’t brutal, but our funding levels are going backwards instead of forward,” said Glenn Gustafson, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, the second-largest school district in the area.

“This is my 29th year, and this is by far the hardest budget I’ve ever done,” he said. “What we normally do in four to six months we did in four to six weeks.”

The impacts of shutting down businesses and restricting people from normal activity for months due to the coronavirus outbreak led to $3.3 billion less state revenue than expected. The situation led lawmakers to hold out on finalizing the 2020-21 budget.

Districts were warned in April that funding cuts as steep as 15% could be coming.

But lawmakers worked to spare K-12 public schools from such severe decreases by using multiple one-time federal funds to help close the gap and by eliminating corporate tax breaks.

That left districts with about 5% less, on average, in appropriations from the general fund than the fiscal year that ended Tuesday. 

Pikes Peak region school districts employed such strategies as layoffs, furloughs, staff reductions through attrition, pay freezes, program cuts and dipping into reserve funds to  balance their budgets for the fiscal year that began Wednesday.

School District 49 in eastern El Paso County declared a fiscal emergency on June 12, in preparing its budget.

“The fiscal emergency is actually a pretty necessary step to validate the strategies and decisions to freeze pay, not replace vacated positions and such that were necessary to react to the reduction,” said Brett Ridgway, chief business officer for D-49.

“If the state of Colorado is in fiscal emergency and K-12 education is the largest spend on the state's budget, how can any K-12 school district not be in a state of fiscal emergency?”

D-49, the area’s third-largest district, did not fill 85 vacant positions but did not resort to layoffs in reducing expenses by $4.9 million. No one’s getting a raise, either.

In cutting $15 million from its budget, Colorado Springs D-11 laid off 15 employees, including one custodian from each high school, Gustafson said.

Other layoffs were from the administration office, which took the largest hit with a $2.5 million budget cut. Twenty teaching positions also were eliminated through attrition.

Every D-11 employee will be required to take one unpaid furlough day, saving about $900,000.

Employees will see a 2% salary increase for experience, known as “steps,” which will amount to a $7 million package, and those completing 16 hours of professional development credentialing will get about a 1% pay increase.

The district decided to boost salaries, Gustafson said, because when steps were frozen in 2008 for multiple years and never restored, some new teachers were entering at a higher salary than veteran teachers.

“We didn’t want that to happen again,” he said.

The area’s largest school district, Academy D-20, did not include raises in its new budget but is giving all employees a one-time 1.25% lump-sum payment this fall.

“Given the uncertainty of funding levels for 2021-22 and beyond, this increase will not be recurring and does not jeopardize our financial future,” said Allison Cortez, spokeswoman.

D-20 projected it would need to slash $16 million but ended up cutting $9 million. There have been no layoffs and will not be any furlough days, Cortez said.

Officials say they are more concerned about the budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Districts now are receiving federal and state COVID-19 relief money to cover related expenses such as additional cleaning and sanitization as well as technology and materials for remote learning.

Stimulus money isn’t expected to be in the future picture.

“Next year’s is going to be far worse,” D-11’s Gustafson predicts. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

District leaders also are trying to plan for fall, with much uncertainty still about students and staff returning for in-person instruction. Schools are bound by any executive orders of the governor, health orders of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and local El Paso County guidelines that may exist in August.

As of now, local schools are planning for in-person classes.

Here’s a look at 2020-21 budgets for some El Paso County school districts.

Academy D-20:

Budget: $292 million

Expense reduction: $9 million

Strategies: No furloughs or layoffs. One-time 1.25% lump-sum payment will be given as a salary boost.

Used one-time reserve dollars from the general fund, capital reserve fund, transportation fund, technology fund and 3% TABOR emergency reserve. Central administration department budgets are reduced by 10%. Cafeteria plan contributions for staff are eliminated, with the money being reallocated for increases in health insurance premiums.

Etc.: We tried to keep cuts and reallocations as far away from the classroom, student programming, and staff salaries and jobs as possible.

Plans are to start classes on Aug. 17, as close to normal as possible. Alternative options for students and staff unable to attend in-person are being created. Surveys on remote learning and fall expectations showed most of the 12,000 respondents, who included teachers, parents and students, preferred an in-person return.

Colorado Springs D-11

Budget: $260.7 million

Expense reduction: $15 million

Strategies: Cut $2.5 million from administration office. Laid off 15 people, reduced teachers by 20 positions through attrition, cut an insurance benefit, decreased district contribution to health insurance.

Requiring one unpaid furlough day for all employees. Giving 2% step movement on salary scale and 1% for professional development credentialing.

Reduced funding for AVID program, temporarily moved mill levy override programs to general fund, decreased capital reserve fund by $1 million.

Etc.: We’ve been talking about a number of different options for returning in the fall. Middle and high school may be hybrid. We know we need elementary students in school five days a week. We’re looking at four days a week regular teaching and learning and the fifth day for WIN, What I Need — gap closure with additional supports.

We’re ordering more electronic devices, and our 501(c)(3) organization is fundraising to provide more internet service for families. A team of 30 educators from all levels is working on a remote platform and drafting curriculum.

Falcon D-49

Budget: $218.5 million

Expense reduction: $4.9 million

Strategies: A net of 85 positions lost due to attrition. No layoffs, no furlough days, salaries frozen.

District practices organizational agility. With this recession, as with the prior, we adjust to the new reality and prepare to launch off of that new reality toward growth in the subsequent year — assuming no additional cuts to funding.

Etc.: D-49, through the operated programs of Springs Studio for Academic Excellence and Pikes Peak Early College, as well as our charter and contract programs of GOAL Academy and the Education reEnvisioned BOCES, is the largest provider of online education in Colorado. Online education is going to grow even more than its previous steady pace. As a result, we are projecting close to 5% overall enrollment growth, led by 7-8% growth in online programs and about 3% growth in traditional settings.

Cheyenne Mountain District 12

Budget: $58.1 million

Expense reduction: $1.5 million

Strategies: Froze salaries, passed health insurance increase on to employees, reduced staffing through attrition. Cut building budgets across the district by 15%, reallocated dollars held in reserves for future textbook purchases, reduced spending for capital projects. No layoffs.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8

Budget: $88.8 million

Expense reduction: $3 million

Strategies: Reduced full-time equivalent positions through attrition across the district and made cuts to other, smaller nonsalary and benefit budget items.

No layoffs; increased certified employee salaries and salaries for staff on supplemental salary schedule by 1%. Returning classified staff will receive a 2% increase. Administrators will not get a salary increase.

Etc.: We focused on maintaining and supporting existing staff.

Hanover School District 28

Budget: $3.9 million

Expense reduction: $350,000

Strategies: Cut two teacher and two paraprofessional positions, reduced other staff through attrition, decreased funding of activities fund, reduced purchased services across the board.

Etc.: School board members desire to return to in-person instruction in the fall, but plans are still on hold.

Harrison District 2

Budget: $199.5 million

Expense reduction: $4.8 million

Strategies: Transferred $1.07 million from capital reserves.

No layoffs but reduced staff through attrition from retirements and resignations, reassigned some employees from district offices to classrooms, froze salaries.

Brought professional development in-house. Eliminated noneducational expenses, including supplies, travel and purchased services, throughout departments.

Etc: We worked to minimize impacts to the classroom and relied on collaboration at all levels, recognizing the current economic situation and impacts beyond.

We are planning for students to return to school Aug. 10, using a cohort model and following all the recommended safety precautions. Orientation days will be Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, to review new protocols with families and students.

All K-12 students will be provided a laptop, in the event that a student requires online instruction based on a health concern or a high-risk family member.

Lewis-Palmer District 38

Budget: $55 million

Expense reduction: $2 million

Highlights: Some vacant positions left unfilled. Also delayed curriculum adoption purchases, delayed equipment and maintenance expenses, cut administrative and school expenses to minimal and are dipping into reserves.

No layoffs, no salary increases.

Etc.: We used teamwork; administrators and principals looked at all reductions in order to protect the educational experiences of our students.

D-38 will offer in-person and online programming beginning Aug. 19 and also will provide a one day a week, free Home School Enrichment Academy for K-8 students living in and out of district.

Widefield District 3

Budget: $106.5 million

Expense reduction: In excess of $5 million

Strategies: Allocated $3.5 million from reserves. Cut textbook adoptions and some capital projects and applied a 5% cut to all areas and schools. Also moved technology purchases to the CARES Act relief grant.

Some empty positions are being left unfilled. Salaries are frozen, however, employees will receive a one-time compensation in the fall.

Etc.: We believe we were successful in keeping cuts away from the classroom to not directly affect students as well as protect staff as much as possible with limited staff changes for the 2020-2021 school year.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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