Winter Park, East Grand officials talk about school funding
May 11, 2011
School officials met with Winter Park Town Council during a work session Tuesday, May 10, to answer questions and discuss concerns regarding the school funding situation.
Superintendent Nancy Karas and School Board President Tom Sifers told council members that the school district no longer needs the town’s $75,000 pledge to keep Fraser Elementary School open next year and that the school is not on the chopping block this year (see related story).
Additionally, Karas said, taking community funding to “buy” two years for Grand Lake and Fraser elementary schools is not an option she wants to consider.
Community funding could help improve programs within the schools, Karas said, and that is something she would support as long as there aren’t “strings attached.”
With all the cuts that have had to happen to make the budget work, the schools have been left with deficiencies in staff, curriculum and materials.
“It’s not an education you want for your children, definitely not for the long term,” Karas said.
Some board members were angry that the community was put through all the heartache these past few months.
“We made budget (recommendations) based on absolute fantasy,” said board member Jimmy Lahrman, who also sits on the District Accountability Committee. “All this time and effort … The numbers weren’t even close.”
“The teachers should be mad as hell,” he added. “We’ve cut all their resources.”
Karas and Sifers spent nearly an hour walking council members through the budget process and recent developments that changed the district’s bottom line.
“It’s not that we were trying to deceive anyone. It’s about timing, it’s about cuts,” Karas said.
Karas and Sifers both told the council that they think the school district needs to manage it’s fiscal situation from within if it can.
“Why should we take your money? If we can manage it … then let us manage it,” Karas said.
But, she added, if the community wants to partner with the schools to support certain programs, “that’s a better idea.”
Lahrman asked whether the district was still open to spending 25 percent of its reserves to catch up on some of the other items that have been cut in recent months.
“Buying education has a different feel to it than buying a building,” Karas said, in support of spending some reserves to improve programs.
More savings could be found if the district closes Grand Lake Elementary School, which may only have 40-some students next year compared with 270 at Fraser Elementary School.
Council member Chris Seemann said, “We just spent four months saying local schools are important to us and now that it’s just Grand Lake on the chopping block … we’re good. Is anyone else (uncomfortable with that)?”
Karas pointed out that closing Fraser would have required a program shift for the entire district, including a complete re-alignment of grades.
“The last thing I want to do is close a school,” she added.
As the conversation progressed, Lahrman was still clearly frustrated. “It’s difficult for me to have (gathered) all this community support and not hear you want to accept it and work with it,” he said.
Sifers replied, “I think people are expecting us to be fiducially responsible.”
Karas encouraged council to consider making a contribution to the Grand Foundation, noting that she feels like there is more opportunity now for the school district to apply for large grants from that organization than ever before.
Council members said they plan to stay more actively involved in the school issues now.
“We were all asleep at the wheel when this hit us,” said member Katie Riemenschneider.
Council member Vince Turner said contributing to the Grand Foundation’s education fund would allow the town to test run the Steamboat model “at a much lower voltage … see how it works.”
Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin, who was also at the Winter Park workshop, invited Karas and Sifers to come to the next Fraser meeting for a similar discussion. Some of Fraser’s board members were equally frustrated with the situation when they heard about it last week, he said, but they didn’t have all the information and they might be interested in supporting school programs in other ways.
The upshot of this entire process, Larhman said, is there is “still an entire county behind improving education in this district.”
Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610