RBC I When the economy fell into recession in mid to late 2008, a majority of industries and individuals felt the pain. While the recession was officially declared over before 2010, many school districts are still struggling to cope with the loss of funding.
Both the Rangely and Meeker schools have had to get creative in order to keep providing education while reaching out to the local community for support.
In order to understand the state of current school spending, one must know the basics of the Colorado School Finance Act. Passed in 1994, the Finance Act funds school districts on a per-student basis based on a district-student count taken each October. The funding comes primarily from a combination of state taxes, vehicle registration and local property taxes.
When the economy fell one area the state cut was education. They did this by establishing what they term as the “negative factor,” which essentially means the amount of money they know they should be funding to each district, but are unable to.
Rangely Schools Finance Director Steve Kraft says that the Rangely schools have lost out on $2.6 million since 2008 through the current school year because of the negative factor.
Meeker Superintendent Mark Meyer is unsure of the total funding amount lost, however he says that since 2009 Meeker has been forced to cut many areas and no longer offers business classes at the high school, technology at the elementary school, middle school Title 1 (a federal program geared at providing interventions to students from low income families), and art as well as librarians at the elementary and middle school levels.
For the current school year Meeker also instituted a four-day school week and a 10 percent cut to all non-salaried budgets.
Meyer stated that he doesn’t see a better future for public education funding “due to numerous layers of legislation that have been placed in the School Finance Act by legislators over the past several decades.”
Kraft, however, was a little more optimistic about the future, hoping for a “modest increase in state funding as the economy continues to improve.”
Since the state pulled back the purse strings, Rangely schools have also seen cuts made within the district.
Rangely has eliminated its elementary school art position, combined the junior and senior high schools, which removed several administrative, secretarial and teaching positions, and went to a four- day school week several years ago. In order to counteract the loss of state funding Rangely schools were able to pass a bond to help fund capital investment work and a mill levy in conjuncture with the Western Rio Blanco Recreation District to help fund athletics and activities.
The mill levy, which was originally brought into consideration by former school board member Ken Parsons several years prior to its successful ballot initiative, allows the district to fund athletics and activities separately, leaving more room in the budget for other expenditures.
In order to increase funds available for the Meeker School District, voters will be presented with a ballot initiative in the upcoming November election.
Meeker schools are asking for a mill levy override totaling $949,921.
According to Meyer, these funds will go toward restoring some of the class offerings that had been cut, reducing class size and ensuring a competitive compensation and benefits package for teachers. They will also spend money fixing several safety issues on school properties, which have been neglected in the past due to budget constraints.
When asked what the contingency plan was should the mill levy measure fail, Meyer responded that the district “will have to continue to make tough decisions on how to balance the budget” and “seek outside funding opportunities.”
The district has already received several outside funds over the past year.
In spring 2014 Meeker schools were given grants from the county Cemetery, Fire, Library and Park and Recreation Districts.
Meyer said the “whole community reached out to help.”
The grants received from the districts are for specific projects only, and Meyer is hopeful that if the mill levy passes, the district will have more funds available for operating expenses and whatever else is needed.
When asked about his thoughts on the chances of the mill levy passing Meyer responded that he felt it has “mixed chances, but the community seems positive.”
Rangely and Meeker are not alone in their budget woes.
According to Great Education Colorado, a grassroots organization whose mission is to “stimulate wise investment in Colorado schools,” Colorado currently spends $1,397 per student less than the national average.
With the Meeker School District mill levy override vote quickly approaching, the eastern end of Rio Blanco County will soon get the chance to weigh in on the debate of how much funding the schools need.