Jobs, school on the line in East Grand budget crunch
January 8, 2010
Nothing is being overlooked, they said.
Charged with cutting $1 million out of the 2010 budget and another $1 million the following year, members of the East Grand School District Accountability Committee, made up of 50 volunteers from a cross-section of the community, are feeling the burden.
“It sounds cliche-ish, but literally no stone has been left unturned,” said committee member Anne-Marie Salem, eighth-grade English teacher at East Grand Middle School for 10 years.
To her and others, the realization that teachers’ positions may need to be eliminated in order to make the first-year budget work – as well as the possibility of a school closure the following year and more cuts in athletics – the work has been difficult to stomach.
“What is heartbreaking, at least for me – and I cried all the way home from the DAC meeting last night because it’s the community that has supported this school district to be as strong as it is, and has invested so much time historically in the people and programs to make the district what it is – and now, to a certain degree, we are disassembling what we have created,” Salem said. “Whether it’s a program, a tradition thwarted because of changes, whether it’s people’s livelihoods, it’s heartbreaking, especially since it is so fiercely personal.”
As many as seven to 12 teachers could lose positions in upcoming budget decisions slated for March.
An accountability subcommittee reviewing athletics and activities has been charged with finding $60,000 in cuts for next year, and according to committee member and parent Chris Tarr, athletic cuts the following year “could be much larger.”
And barring proposed efforts to improve attendance at Grand Lake Elementary School, that school faces the possibility of closure as early as the 2011-2012 school year.
“You can’t solve the second-year problem without something major,” said Tarr, who has one child attending Grand Lake Elementary and another at the East Grand Middle School. “You can solve ‘year one’ with a bunch of small changes, but ‘year two,’ there are not enough small changes to add up to solve the problem. So you have to change something big, or some things big.”
Presently on the table is a last-ditch effort to keep the Grand Lake school open by increasing its enrollment.
District administrators have proposed implementing a five-days-per-week schedule and allowing any student from anywhere in the district to enroll there. The district would cover the transportation to and from the school, and school start time would be later.
“I am a huge supporter of Grand Lake Elementary and would hate to see it closed, even temporarily,” Tarr said. “I would prefer a change to a 5-day open enrollment structure over closure.”
If the school is closed in the 2011-12 school year, the district estimates savings of about $250,000 a year.
Preliminary calculations show that operating the Grand Lake school at a higher capacity triggered by the 5-day schedule would cost about $19,125 a year, a low dollar figure due to staffing the school according to current-year enrollment.
“We need each of our facilities and staff to be used to their fullest potential in an effort to make them financially viable during these difficult budget years,” East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas wrote in a Jan. 7 memo to district staff about the proposed changes to Grand Lake Elementary School.
But even with the changes proposed for September, 2010, “We all need to understand it does not guarantee the viability of the Grand Lake Elementary School in the future if the state budget continues to crumble, but I feel we need to make every attempt to secure those assets that are valuable to the district and community while we try and ride out this storm.”
The district could not afford shifting to five days-a-week district-wide, Karas said, and is not considering that.
Another small-attendance school, Indian Peaks Charter School, is also supported by state per-pupil allocations via the district. But that school is not being considered for closure, according to East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas.
State laws forbid districts to shed a charter school unless it consistently posts low test scores or cannot show that it is financially viable. A district would have to prove its case directly to the Colorado Board of Education. The East Grand School District has no plans to do so, Karas said.
Salary cuts are not yet on the table in an effort to maintain the “academic core for student success,” Karas said, who commented in a recent board meeting that the district’s aim is to keep the teachers it has and fears salary cuts would cause more than a few to move on.
But that doesn’t mean teachers won’t feel cuts, according to committee members.
Salary schedule adjustments, insurance co-pay, furlough days, 10-20 percent cuts on materials and supplies budgets, and more students per classroom are all being considered.
“In the end, are teachers going to feel the burden of this? For sure,” Tarr said. “Is it going to be purely seen in the number that is on their paycheck? Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no.”
The economy plus legislative policies and the community’s tax base are all cause for the district’s budget crisis. The state’s deep cuts in education means $193,000 is likely to be rescinded from East Grand’s 2009 general-fund account, which the districted expected would happen per its budget.
The district is bracing for $685,000 less in state funding in the upcoming school-year budget. Administrators have been told to not count on an increase in state education funding for the next five years, meaning a probable 6.12 percent decrease in state funding in the 2011-12 school year and possibly beyond.
Meanwhile, the district is enduring increased costs to do business, such as in utilities and insurance.
To make matters worse, Grand County property owners’ unpaid taxes in 2009 meant $44,000 less to the district.
“I don’t think the public realizes, the (committee) is moving to change things for next year, but planning on things getting worse,” Tarr said. “We hope they don’t; we hope things will turn around. We hope everyone will scream and yell to state legislature and to Congress to find solutions, to find relief.”
And his education, he said, has been learning about all of the state and federal budget constraints in school finances.
Known as business-savvy, Tarr also said he has had an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve been reminded over and over in these meetings, the school is not run like a business. You come in with a cavalier business attitude and you quickly realize that doesn’t work for a school and there are many reasons why it won’t.”
Salem commended the district for “putting the process in the hands of the community as represented in this committee,” made up of students, parents, business people, faculty and other community members.
For the first time, the committee that has tackled school calendar adjustments to allow for winter break, English Language Learner programs, class-size ratios and other positive improvements is coming to terms with having to make suggestions that could break the district down.
“The bottom line is, everyone is there for the same reasons: Education, education, education,” said accountability committee member and Grand Lake parent Kevin Cox, speaking of the priorities of the committee.
“Everything is second to that.”
• Grand Lake Elementary School Community meeting – 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 13, at the Grand Lake Elementary School
• District Accountability Committee preliminary discussions with the board (with some possible budget recommendations) – 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the East Grand School District boardroom
• District representatives will be attending town board meetings and holding community meetings throughout the district