Reduced schedule and pay part of School District 51 budget cuts

Steve Shultz

Mesa County School District 51 teachers and administrators face pay cuts as part of budget cuts proposed by Superintendent Steve Schultz.

The plan also calls for the equivalent of 186 fewer full-time positions in the district. The school board is scheduled to approve a final budget in late June.

The plan calls for three fewer work days for teachers and most employees, a reduction that will save

$1.9 million in pay for full-time employees. Teachers and administrators will realize a pay cut of about 1.5 percent, Schultz said. Transportation costs for the district exceed $40,000 a day, so the district will save more than $120,000 in bus operation costs.

“The teachers union has been very cooperative and understanding,” Schultz said. “There will be no incremental increase for experience or education.”

One particularly painful cut for the district is the planned elimination of 116 part-time reading instructional assistants, the equivalent of 51 full-time positions. They’re positions the district considers important, but finances dictated the move. “We have to look at the details,” Schultz said. “What’s going to give us the most bang for the buck?”

Meanwhile, the budget proposal calls for 58 percent less spending for administrative costs compared to the 2009-2010 school year. The district spends 86 cents of each dollar on classrooms, while one penny goes to administration, Schultz said.

The district’s budget for the next year is estimated at $138.4 million, down from $151.8 million in 2009-2010.

Faced with declining state funding for students, an anticipated drop in student enrollment in the fall and rising health insurance costs for employees, Schultz has proposed $13.6 million in reduced spending as compared to the recently completed school year. While the predicted shortfall is actually $11.9 million, Schultz said the district is unsure what it will receive from specific ownership tax in Mesa County. The final tally of the tax on cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats won’t be calculated until the end of June, so he erred on the side of caution when constructing the budget plan.

State funding for K-12 education has been sliding since the 2009-2010 school year and so has the pool of money districts collect from local residents. Consequently, cuts proposed in Mesa County are the norm across the state. School districts are expected to trim expenses by $836 million for the school year that begins in August.

District 51 anticipates the state will pay about $6,100 per student in 2011-2012, compared to about $6,700 in 2009-10. State lawmakers continue to bemoan increasing costs for Medicaid and decreased property tax collections as reasons they eye K-12 and colleges when they trim funding. Declining property taxes are a problem in Mesa County as well. The drop, combined with a statewide freeze on the school district portion of the mill levy, reduces the amount of tax each homeowner sends to the school district. The median home sales price in the county was $169,000 in the first quarter of this year, down about $70,000 from peak prices just two years ago.

Because 30 percent of District 51 dollars come from local property taxes — and the state budget likely could worsen through the summer of 2013 — Schultz expects even more budget cuts.

Those reductions could occur in areas taxpayers usually suggest whenever dollars are tight, he said. They include the sale of district-owned land, reduced bus routes and elimination of art and music programs.

“Some people say ‘Do away with sports,’” Schultz said. Yet every time the district considers cutting a program, someone is concerned the cut is a bad idea, he said. It’s usually a 50-50 proposition, with half the parents favoring the program cuts and half opposing them.

“There’s not one thing that’s not of some value,” he said.

But everything’s on the table as the district braces for additional cuts for the 2012-2013 school year.

That includes potential sale of property the district owns in anticipation of constructing more schools due to the prediction the local population will continue to grow. Such a sale when land prices are depressed could prove penny wise and pound foolish, Schultz said. “We have to balance what we paid for it and what we could get for it. But if the cuts go much deeper, we won’t have any choice.”

The situation is particularly challenging in light of a goal to offer a world-class education in Mesa County. The goal was outlined by the school district in conjunction with the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Grand Junction Forum last fall.

“I would argue we’re making improvements,” Schultz said. District 51 high school schools took home the top three awards at a recent statewide academic team competition, Nisley Elementary School was recognized as a school of excellence by the state and more than 10 students have qualified for a national speech and debate competition, he said.

Continued progress requires funding, but the district will press on with the funding it has. “They’re tough times. We’re responding,” Schultz said.