Forum on MSD funding fuels many ideas to help with shortfall

MEEKER I A large group of district officials, board members, community members, teachers and parents attended the public forum held by the Meeker School District on Thursday night at Meeker High School to gather ideas on how the district should deal with a budget shortfall of more than $1 million.
There were nearly as many ideas voiced as there were people who spoke at the forum held in the auditorium. (For those unable to attend or to add ideas, surveys are available at the district’s webpage at Eighteen community members had comments and questions.
Board President Bill deVergie said a working group will be formed to consider input from Thursday’s meeting and plan out what to do with the budget for next few years.
He explained that this fiscal emergency was not an accounting error, but instead is the result of complex legislation and bad timing. Specifically, a higher tax valuation last year led to a lower per-pupil allocation from the state this year because current assessed values have plummeted.
On Jan. 7, the district was informed that it would receive $739 less per student then what the Colorado Division of Education (CDE) estimated last fall for the 2013-2014 school year. Enrollment in Meeker has also reduced to 650 students this year down from a peak of 700 a few years ago.
The lower per-pupil funding amount was due to the negative factor. The negative factor was instituted by the state Legislature to reduce education spending during the recent recession.
Meeker was not the only district in trouble this year; Paonia and DeBeque also face major losses in funding, District Superintendent Mark Meyer said.
During a working session with the Meeker School Board on Tuesday night, Kathy Gebhardt, the executive director of the non-profit education-bade law firm Children’s Voices, estimated the negative factor to be about $1.1 billion for 2013-2014 and said the state’s education fund is currently at $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion.
The education fund is meant for one time spending and receives funds left over from the general budget.
The Joint Budget Committee (JBC) recommends that at least $100 million be kept in this fund to address fluctuation in revenues.
Meyer said the Legislature knows this is a problem for some rural districts. Meyer had heard that Meeker was discussed specifically on the floor last week. He said the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) is considering supplemental funding (not a loan) that would address budget problems due to the negative factor with districts facing the fiscal cliff.
Based on audio transcripts from committee meetings last week, a Joint Education Committee (JEC) meeting on Jan. 22 discussed paying down the negative factor and direct aid for rural districts, including Meeker.
“At the end of the day, I think we will find solutions, but I don’t know how or where,” Mayer said. The general consensus was that regardless of how the Meeker School District makes it through this year, there will likely need to be some spending or revenue changes for the future.
“We can’t continue to be 16 to 17 percent short halfway through year, Meyer said, adding that the district can hope there will be help from the Legislature, but, even if that doesn’t happen, Meeker should have a plan to reach a sustainable annual budget.
Ed Coryell, a Meeker School Board member, said this is not the first time we have run short on cash. He also said the school district tried a four-day school week for six years without much success, but, he added, “In the end, we owe these kids the best education possible.”
David Cole said, “I don’t have kids, but I value education.” Cole thought the district should revisit increasing the mill levee.
First to speak during the forum was Bruce Adams, who worried that the estimates from the CDE seem to be worse than in the past and would like any measures that would give more local control and prediction of school funding. Adams wondered about reallocating savings from other special taxing districts or putting forth a proposal to change the distribution of the county’s mill levees to increase education funding.
Doug Overton thought we should have some faith this will work out and have confidence that something could be worked out with the other special taxing districts.
No one was sure about how this would work. It seems that other county special taxing districts could donate or vote to allocate funds directly, but it is unlikely that those mill levies could be changed without the districts’ approval and major legislative action.
Kim Rule brought up the potential for more computer-based courses and thought combined teaching and administrative positions should be considered along with smaller buses for long routes and sporting events.
Kristy Neilson wondered if the district could pool its technology purchasing with other districts to get better prices. She also brought up fundraising for athletics and maybe charging fees for overnight stays. She also wondered if parents could help with transportation on some events.
Coleen Patterson said she is a proud parent of “two aspiring nerds” and felt there were at least four top teachers that she could not do without in preparing her children for college.
Patterson also asked if the district can reduce spending on state mandates for testing and assessments.
Meyer said it will likely be part of the discussion for next year, but ”it is tricky to figure out how much could be saved.”
Cassie Denney wanted to set up receptacles for box tops that can be turned in for donations to local school districts. She emphasized the importance of art and music programs but questioned the amount of spending on athletics. She said, “Extra-curricular is extra.”
Cassie McGuire spoke about the value of extra-curricular programs such as athletics and journalism in preparing her son for college, teaching him values and opening up scholarship opportunities. Her son, Calvin Shepherd, is a senior this year and a varsity wrestler. He has also written articles published in Herald Times.
She said, “It should be an entire education, not just the classroom.
Pat Hughes thought the district should meet with the boards of the other special taxing districts, and Scott Aldridge wanted the district to look into a sales tax hike instead of increasing property taxes.
Don Frances hoped the legislation would limit the negative factor in the future and that a long-term solution is needed so the district can keep more of its own money.
Heather Sauls said she would favor a long-term reliable increase in the tax base over increasing class sizes.
Lori Kendall wondered about savings from the four-day school week and thought we should check with other districts to see how it worked out for them.
Cory Brickey opposed the four-day week since it didn’t seem to gain last time and it would increase childcare needs for parents.
Lori Kendall wanted to thank the board and teachers for the work they do. Kendall said she “saw lots of teachers that do stuff out of their own pockets and that we need to all work together.”
Mellisa Woodward wanted it known, “don’t cut teachers; what they do for kids is amazing.” She said she has lived in districts where sports fees were prohibitive for some kids and she loved that it is possible for her kids to be involved in sports here. She also thought the district could do more fundraising for athletics and said that to her it has been amazing to see how sports have allowed her children’s personalities to grow.
Mekeysha Slaugh also talked about other districts where kids have to pay extra for sports. She didn’t think it was fair to attack sports on budget issues.