Public role sought in School Distict 51 budgeting

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 

A series of public forums are planned for February as officials with Mesa County School District 51 continue to look for ways to cope with what’s expected to be declining revenues.

An online survey also will be conducted even as District 51 staff and a budget advisory committee also meet. “We want this to be seen as a community effort,” said Superintendent Steve Schultz.

While it’s still too early to know for sure, another $4 million to $8 million in cuts could be needed to balance the District 51 budget for the 2012-2013 school year, Schultz said.

Those cuts would come on top of a total of $28.6 million in cuts over the past three years. Last year alone, the school board approved $13.6 million in cuts that included the reduction of 185 full-time positions and a shorter school year by three days.

Three public forums to gather suggestions and comments on possible school budget cuts are planned. The forums are set for 6 70 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 9 at Bookcliff Middle School, 540 29 1/4 Road; Feb. 16 at the Grand Junction High School Library, 1400 N. Fifth St.; and Feb. 24 at Redlands Middle School, 2200 Broadway. A third party will facilitate the forums and guide the process, Schultz said.

In addition, an online survey will be available starting Feb. 6 on the District 51 Web site located at Internal staff meetings about budget cuts will continue through April.

The school board also appointed a 19-member advisory committee to consider possible budget cuts and formulate recommendations.

Since state funding accounts for about 70 percent of revenue for District 51, Schultz said he’s heartened by news that projected increases in state tax revenues could mean decreased cuts for schools.

Growing school enrollment statewide could use up a portion of increased revenues, Schultz said. Moreover, enrollment is expected to continue to decline in District 51, resulting in a decrease in state funding, he said.

At the same time, the District 51 contribution to the public employment pension fund will increase next year, accounting for an additional $1 million in the budget, Schultz said. Federal and state mandates for school districts in Colorado add yet another layer of complexity to budgeting, he said.

Among other things, those mandates require additional assessments of incoming kindergarten and first grade students to determine whether or not they’re prepared for school, additional assessments of high school students to determine whether or not they’re ready for the work force or college, new instructional content standards and more comprehensive performance evaluations of educators.

Schultz doesn’t dispute the necessity of the mandates, but said they require school districts to allocate additional staff time and, therefore, money to meet the requirements. “They don’t come at zero expense.”

Two ballot measures that would have temporarily increased taxes to provide additional school funding failed in the November election.

Referred Measure 3B asked voters to allow District 51 to override a state mill levy freeze and assess an additional seven mills of property tax for six years. The increased would have raised an estimated $12.5 million each year at the current level of property values.

Proposition 103, a statewide measure, asked voters to increase state sales and income tax rates for five years to generate an estimated $3 billion in additional funding for education.

That leaves District 51 officials looking for ways to cut the budget — and asking public to become involved in the process.