MEEKER I Mark Meyer, superintendent of Meeker School District RE-1 (MSD) and 167 other Colorado superintendents endorsed a letter to the Colorado General Assembly and Gov. John Hickenlooper to express, “shared concerns regarding the extreme state of inadequate funding for Colorado’s public schools.”
The superintendents, representing 99 percent of Colorado students, asked the General Assembly and the governor to begin buying down the negative factor and not impose any new unfunded mandates upon school districts. Since 2009, the negative factor has decreased per-pupil funding in Colorado. These cuts have coincided with new requirements for student testing as well as teacher and principal evaluation.
“The dramatic funding cuts forced painful reductions that have led to increased class size, reduced services for children and delay of critical infrastructure needs,” the letter states. “Colorado must now begin to restore funding for public education, like other states across the nation.”
School boards that receive mostly state funds have had to endure cuts of up to 15 percent per year due to the negative factor.
The negative factor was put into place to reduce spending during the recession and has been a controversial way to avoid spending increases required by Amendment 23. Passed by voters in 2000, Amendment 23 called for Colorado K-12 funding to be restored to 1989 levels and then rise with inflation. The negative factor was a way to avoid this requirement.
Although important statewide, the negative factor has not been much of a factor in Meeker. During the past two fiscal years MSD budgets were only reduced by $1,213 due to the negative factor and not at all in previous years.
However, in January, right in the middle of the fiscal year, Meeker learned it would have a $528,223 reduction in funding due to the negative factor.
In late January, the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) recommended restoring $476,366 of this cut to Meeker. If approved by the Legislature and the governor, the JBC measure would cover almost 40 percent of the $1.2 million MSD deficit for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013-14. This would still leave more than 60 percent of the deficit to be made up by the district’s capital reserve fund and an uncertain budget for FY 2014-15.
The MSD accountability committee conducted a public survey on the district’s website after the financial emergency meeting last month. About 130 people responded to survey questions, of which 40 percent were parents, 31 percent community members, 23 percent certified or classified employees and 6 percent were students.
Great teachers were identified by 90 percent of the respondents as being the most essential element in MSD’s educational success. Nearly 70 percent of respondents did not want to see job cuts or a 3 percent salary reduction to address the financial situation.
About 58 percent considered furlough days when students were not in class or a 1 percent salary reduction acceptable. Assuming a four-day school week would save about $70,000 per year, more than 85 percent of the respondents thought it should be considered.
Class size and teacher training was identified by more than 80 percent of respondents as being important or essential to the success of the school district. Seventy percent of the respondents rated building environment, fine arts, electives, and Advanced Placement (AP) college courses as important or essential. Competitive athletics was rated as being important by 55 percent of the respondents with more than 35 percent saying athletics was good but not essential to the MSD mission.
Increasing athletic and class fees was selected as being acceptable to address the financial situation by more than 60 percent of the respondents. However, a majority did not want to charge uniform fees or have a pay-to-play model for athletics.
A pay-to-play athletics model would have all the costs borne by those who participate. Athletic costs were $278,919 for FY 2013-14, including full- and part-time salaries. Assuming 270 junior high and high school students or 90 percent of the student body participated in sports, $1,000 per year per student would cover the athletic program, not including transportation and maintaining the facilities. The MSD Board of Education begins the budget on July 1 each year and ends the previous year on the last day of June. Mid-year changes are made in October, when student enrollment is finalized, and supplemental budgets occur throughout the year with changes in revenues or expenses. This year, the $1.2 million shortfall occurred after a mid-year change in assessed property values led to the dramatic increase in the negative factor.
Colorado school districts have a funding structure defined by the Colorado Department of Education Financial Policies and Procedures (FPP) handbook. The funding structure includes an insurance reserve fund, bond redemption fund, projects building fund, capital reserve fund, the food service fund and the general fund, which pays salaries and most of the common expenditures. MSD’s 166-page FPP handbook is dog-eared from repeated use.
“These funds don’t grow year to year,” said MSD financial director Janelle Urista. Instead, toward the end of the year, any extra funds go back to the general fund. Some funds such as the insurance reserve and bond funds are separate from the main budget since they represent fairly consistent obligations.
Annual independent audits are performed in fall for the previous fiscal year. The FY 2012-13 independent auditor’s report for MSD identified $38 million in current assets, of which $31 million is in capital assets (building, land and equipment).
Long-term liabilities, specifically the bond for the new elementary school, was $21.5 million last year. The elementary bonds require a semi-annual payment for interest rates that vary from 3.0 percent to 5.6 percent and there was a $1.6 million budgeted for the FY 2013-14 bond fund. The bonds are due to be paid off sometime after 2029.
By Bob Lange
Special to the Herald Times