Grand communities rally for schools |

Grand communities rally for schools

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

Fraser Valley Elementary and Grand Lake Elementary schools won’t close if a community effort to keep the schools open and improve education countywide is successful.

During a multi-town, county and organization meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at Granby Town Hall, town leaders gathered in the name of education.

With the lack of state funding a potential threat to the future stability of both the East Grand and West Grand school districts, many leaders pledged to try and find ways to close deficit gaps for this year. Doing so would buy time for a soon-to-be-formed “ad-hoc” committee (proposed to be under the East Grand School District Board) to research a more permanent funding solution for all schools.

A new source of revenue could improve the educational experience for all kids in both school systems, said Winter Park Resort President Gary DeFrange.

Although he has “fought it for a number of years,” he said, “I think the thing to do is a sales tax increase.”

A 1 percent sales tax increase, which would require a countywide vote, remains the most plausible of all funding solutions, he said.

To move on a path toward this, many segments of the community would be “bearing some of the burden,” according to Jim Lahrman, Winter Park town board member and third-year member of the East Grand School District Accountability Committee.

The district budget subcommittee, whose top recommendation to the East Grand Board of Education on Jan. 18 was to close two schools, met on Feb. 7 and brainstormed more ways to cut the district’s draft 2011-2012 budget.

Budget subcommittee members decided “unanimously” that – with a newly engaged community willing to help local education with possible long-term funding – they recommend to the district board the use of $500,000 of reserves, amounting to a quarter of the district’s savings.

That would leave about $1.3 million in district reserves, which would support district operations for about one month.

Another $150,000 to $175,000 in cuts, said Lahrman, would be in addition to the $2 million in cuts the district has made over the past two years.

With cuts and money from the reserves, the district would cover more than half the projected funding shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year. But $400,000 would still be needed from the community, Lahrman said.

“Would you please help us contribute to the $400,000 shortfall?” Lahrman asked the roomful of commissioners, trustees, council members and other leaders from Hot Sulphur Springs, Granby, Grand Lake, Fraser and Winter Park.

The Town of Kremmling and the West Grand School District were not represented at the meeting.

District cuts

The East Grand School District Board of Education has not yet voted whether to close the schools.

District officials have set a timeline of March 1 for the community to present whether funding would be available.

Then on Tuesday, March 29, the school district board plans to take all recommended options under consideration and make its decision. Among choices are whether to risk its reserves and undergo more cuts to keep schools open while long-term funding is explored, or temporarily close schools this spring or my mid-December 2011 when funds run dry.

Even if schools are closed, the board would encourage the long-term funding conversation to continue, said East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas.

“Nobody wants to cut facilities in the East Grand School District,” Lahrman said, speaking on behalf of the district budget committee. “But our main objective is to protect the quality of education, not protect facilities.”

In spite of this, the DAC budget committee agreed to review the budget with a “scalpel instead of a chainsaw” to get through the next school year, minus school closures.

The committee explored cuts that would impact “parents, administration, teachers and the district” as a whole, Lahrman said.

Proposed as “one-time solutions” to the district budget for the upcoming year were: Adding back student fees for technical supplies, sports, parking and activities; housing the district administrative offices in the East Grand Middle School and closing the administration building; taking faculty step raises out of the budget equation; and cutting textbook adoptions and material supplies.

Even if the community steps up with its estimated $400,000 portion – in addition to district sacrifices – Lahrman said, the future would remain uncertain. A long-term solution such as a 1 percent sales tax would require the blessing of voters.

“I would urge you as leaders of the communities to educate (voters) about what’s at stake,” he said. “Or, it will be the same emotional roller coaster again and we’ll be back here next year talking about closing schools if we don’t find a permanent funding source.”

County contribution

Grand County Commissioners James Newberry and Nancy Stuart announced the county’s intent to renegotiate Forest Reserve money that annually is divvied among school districts and the county’s road and bridge department.

Newberry said the county would consider cutting the road and bridge budget to help schools.

By law, 25 percent of Forest Reserve funds must be distributed to schools, and 25 percent to the county. But the remaining 50 percent can be doled out at the discretion of county officials. Renegotiating that agreement could mean about $177,000 additional funds to the East Grand School District and $50,000 or so to the West Grand School District, Newberry said, who reminded the audience that the school finance problem affects both East Grand and West Grand districts. “West Grand is in trouble too,” he said. “That’s why we came to the table.”

Grand Foundation and Chamber

Ron Nelson of the East Grand Education Foundation under the Grand Foundation said his board was willing to commit about 25 percent of its reserves to help the East Grand district’s short-term funding dilemma.

Board member Tom Carey of the Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce said the chamber was willing to help, with energy “to get the message out,” or perhaps with funds.

Wild cards

“I feel like Granby is the big elephant in the room,” said Granby Mayor Jynnifer Pierro, around the time when officials from each of the towns announced how much reserves they had in their budgets.

From the feedback she’s been getting around Granby, spending money for schools from the town’s budget would be a “hard sell,” she said.

“But what I’ve been trying to tell people is the long-term viability of our school is in jeopardy,” she said.

Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin expressed his concern about using town funds for the district, saying the town is already operating with a deficit. Granting money to schools would be “leveraging our future against the school board’s future,” he said.

“I would suggest the school board is our future,” DeFrange replied.

Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke pointed out that Granby does have a dog in the fight, because if either school is shut down, the district would have a hard time passing a bond issue and all schools would suffer. Burke’s suggestion to the district is to revisit the budget with major cuts “from the top down” to try and avoid closing any school.

Outside the meeting, Pierro further conveyed confusion about the current proposals, wondering whether forming a charter school or seceding from the district were still on the table for several Fraser Valley community members even if other towns step up to help.

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