Grand County education panel: Skip sales tax for now
May 6, 2011
GRAND COUNTY – The education ad hoc committee formed to explore long-term funding solutions for the county’s school districts reached a consensus last week that now is not the time to ask voters to approve a 1 percent sales-tax increase.
Fourteen of the 16 ad-hoc committee members voted against putting something on the November ballot. Two members abstained.
The reasons cited were voter apathy, anti-tax sentiment in the community, public relations challenges regarding school budgets, as well as the possibility of statewide tax initiatives in support of schools proposed for the November ballot.
With this decision, ad-hoc committee member Bob Fanch of the Sprout Foundation recommended the $500,000 raised throughout the community remain intact to keep schools open.
Meanwhile, the East Grand School District’s budget has been a moving target.
In recent months, the district proposed a list of deeper cuts in the wake of the community’s$500,000 challenge pledge. District administrators proposed another $357,500 in curriculum, textbook, supplies and staff cuts. These cuts, along with a more forgiving hike in health insurance than was anticipated, less PERA costs due to reduction in staff, and $182,976 in unexpected state funding in April due to Senate Bill 11-230, East Grand School District’s budget scenario for the next two fiscal years could reflect a deficit of about $1 million.
This outlook is less severe than what was projected in October, when the district board faced a $1.02 million deficit for just the 2011-2012 school year.
On the ad-hoc committee, Fanch proposed the $500,000 education donation from the communities plus $500,000 from the school district’s $1.8 million in unrestricted reserves be used to buy “two years for one.”
“This would enable time to study, talk to the community, and hopefully generate the funds necessary through local and state efforts, plus referendum efforts to get us on solid financial footings in school year 2013-2014,” the May 3 ad-hoc memo reads. “Another advantage for waiting is the economy may get stronger, our student population base may stabilize and state funding may improve, which could result in asking less through referendum efforts.”
But this new proposal could recalibrate the direction of the East Grand School District board.
During a school board discussion on Tuesday, May 3, East Grand School District Board members opted to postpone any decision in order to hear town board responses to this newest proposal.
Each town and organization that pledged funds for schools had done so with the understanding there was the possibility of a voter safety net in the form of a tax increase. With that net gone, some town and organization pledges may unravel. (See accompanying story.)
The education ad-hoc committee, which plans to meet again in the fall, has established two sub-committees that plan to remain active. One is charged with researching local revenue options for schools, the other to explore revenue options for education at the state level. The subcommittees have the support of other active citizens who remain committed to finding solutions.
“People are still very much behind the school district to make education better by improving the school district – by non-tax means at this time,” said Keith Sanders, a Winter Park citizen who has volunteered to research whether cost-of-living calculations that help determine the state’s per-pupil allocations to schools are reasonable for East Grand.
Other ideas tossed around are seeking more state and federal support for what could be an increase in the area’s low-income student population, increasing the Education Foundation’s visibility and perhaps hiring a local grant writer for the area’s schools.
But Superintendent Karas cautioned school board members Tuesday to consider all of the board’s options.
Accepting the community’s money for the next two years and spending $500,000 in district reserves, she said, may cement the district into operating at “status quo” rather than making strides in improving education through the district’s strategic planning.
“It will stall us,” Karas told the board. “If we accept that money from the community, I’m concerned about the fate we have sealed, and the decision we have made about education at East Grand Schools.”
Such a decision, Karas said, would “put money in buildings, not in classrooms and education.”
In light of the district’s improved budget picture since the state’s reimbursement, Karas reminded the board that it still has the choice of using its reserves without the community’s money and its possible “strings attached,” giving the district the freedom to make hard decisions regarding schools, class sizes and athletics while it works to find a balance in supporting education.
“We can’t do status quo,” she said.
“I am really concerned that we are making our cuts on the backs of ‘one-time’ cuts,'” said Middle Park High School Principal Jane Harmon. “We cannot sustain this within our buildings. If our community expects us to do that, it only spells disaster. Because if those (student) scores start going down, the fingers are going to point to this administrative team and the administrators in the building, when they haven’t been given the resources they need. You can’t cut any more to the bone. It’s just not sustainable.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext.19603