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Cutting Class

Denver schools will face a big budget crisis next year, and something's got to go.

All teachers dream of having smaller classes so that they can give more attention to their students, and in Denver, at least, average class sizes have remained fairly steady for the last four years, at 24 to 26 kids per teacher. But that's only because Denver Public Schools has been able to come up with alternate, one-time revenue sources to supplement the funding that comes from the state.

Not anymore.

Beginning with the 2001/2002 school year -- and barring any last-minute windfalls -- DPS will finally have to face the fact that it doesn't have nearly enough money to keep educational levels where they are, and increased class sizes could be one of the first repercussions of this situation.

Last year the district fell $22 million short of being able to provide the same number of programs and a comparable number of teachers as it had the previous year. But two things happened that allowed DPS to balance the budget without making any cuts: First, at the request of the Cherry Creek School District, the state legislature allowed public school districts to sell their rights to earn interest on bonds and instead receive the present-day value of that cash up front; then, Met Life, the health- and life-insurance company DPS had used for more fifty years, decided to venture into additional lines of business and had to pay off shareholders such as the district in order to do so.

During the 1997-1998 school year, the district used $2 million in excess health-insurance reserves to pay for salary increases and other expenses; it also remortgaged its schools to reduce its pension debt. And in the 1995-1996 school year, DPS got a $500,000 rebate from Public Service Company, as well as $180,000 in energy-conservation grants.

"The school board has been criticized for balancing the budget in years past with one-time revenue streams," says DPS chief operating officer Craig Cook. "But we wanted to do as much for kids for as long as possible. Last year we got by on the skin of our teeth; if it hadn't been for those one-time funding opportunities, we'd have taken millions out of programs for kids last year. If we want to do the same things for kids next year, we'll be $17 million short. That means something has to go. I think this year we've reached the endgame. We're going to have to make decisions around program cuts."

But with a budget as lean as DPS's already is, that's going to be difficult. Approximately 82 percent of the district's $465.3 million budget -- or $381.8 million -- goes directly to schools; 58.3 percent of that goes toward teacher salaries, while the rest covers the salaries of school administrators, counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and custodial and security staff, as well as the costs of student transportation and school telephones and computers.

Despite a public perception that DPS has a top-heavy central administration, Cook points out that only 12 percent of the total budget comprises non-school expenses such as staff training, student testing, curriculum development and grant management. The other 6 percent is untouchable: $500,000 goes to the county treasurer's office for the collection of property taxes; $15.7 million goes into capital and insurance funds, and the TABOR amendment requires another $11.7 million to be set aside in an emergency reserve.

"I think we have a very serious problem on our hands," says district spokesman Mark Stevens, adding that 950 additional students will roam DPS hallways next year. "It has more alert status this year because we're trying to staff on a competitive time frame with our suburban counterparts. Schools get money based on enrollment, so in the past we'd wait until the spring -- when enrollment for the next year was more clear -- before we'd budget that staff, but that made recruiting teachers difficult. Now we're committed to making enrollment projections in January or February. The key is, can we staff at current levels?"

The Denver Board of Education doesn't want to face the deficit on its own, so it has appointed fourteen community members to a task force that will recommend budget cuts by January 17; the group has been meeting every week since mid-November but hasn't singled out any programs for the chopping block. The school board is expected to make its preliminary decisions by February 1.

"We've decided as a group to focus on broad parts of the budget instead of line-by-line items," says task force co-chair and former Denver school-board member Laura Lefkowits. "We're not saying 'Cut $100,000 from this program and $2 million from that.' We're looking at big areas of cost, like salaries." The group is also interested in learning about the pros and cons of privatizing transportation, social work, custodial and lunch services.

"No one wants to see class size go up, but maintaining small class sizes is very costly," Lefkowits continues. "[Not hiring new teachers] is as much a possibility as anything else. The board hasn't given us any sacred cows; they haven't said, 'Advise us on the budget but maintain class size.'"

Even with the passage of Amendment 23, which voters approved last month to boost education funding across Colorado, the school district must make cuts. The amendment requires the state legislature to fund schools at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent for the next ten years and at the rate of inflation every year after that; the money will come from Colorado's income-tax surplus and will go into an education trust fund. But once the money is split among the state's 178 school districts, Denver's cut isn't very big. Next year's budget, with its $17 million shortfall, already includes the $2.6 million due to come from Amendment 23 in its first year.

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