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Crying wolf

The man who gives -- and takes -- the flak for decisions made by Denver Public Schools is smarting from the recent false alarms the district sounded over possible budget cuts that had been slated for next year.

The announcement that the district was short by $17 million to $25 million caused an uproar among teachers, parents, politicians and the media before DPS bean counters realized that they had more money than they thought. But DPS spokesman Mark Stevens is now wondering if he didn't make it clear enough that the budget was a work in progress.

"What we could have done better was to carefully describe the different parts of our budget assumptions and emphasize at each meeting that there were still many revenue sources yet to be firmed up," he says.

"Should we have put the community through this type of upheaval given the fact that our revenues were not firm? I think we could have been more measured in the way we presented this," Stevens continues. "Whenever any program is going to be cut, it is incumbent upon us as a district to find a humane and clear way to present it. We change people's lives when we change these things. I think it's possible to find a more calm way to think through budget challenges."

To balance this year's budget, the district had proposed reducing funding for gifted-and-talented programs, eliminating the annual Shakespeare Festival, cutting transportation services for high school students and consolidating three small elementary schools.

However, DPS backed away from those ideas after people objected. At the same time, DPS officials learned that the state legislature would give schools a 3.6 percent inflationary increase next year instead of the anticipated 3 percent; in addition, the district renegotiated its health insurance plan so that it would face a 20 percent increase instead of the 35 percent increase for which it had been planning. An anonymous donor also offered to save the Shakespeare Festival by paying the $38,000 needed to sustain it. The money saved by those unexpected changes -- approximately $8.4 million -- allowed DPS to remove those programs and services from the chopping block.

Last week, school-board members found another $777,000 in savings. This allowed them to restore even more of the proposed cuts, such as a position in the superintendent's office and funding for multimedia services.

The remaining cuts include the elimination of one site for night school and five sites where people can earn general equivalency diplomas, as well as reductions in military-science education. There is now enough money left over to provide the $3.9 million that will be needed to operate three new schools, to maintain classroom additions, to prepare for another four schools scheduled to open in 2002 and to give teachers a raise.

Still, DPS chief operating officer Craig Cook says the district will face tough choices again next year. Since 1995, DPS has balanced its budget with one-time sources of revenue ("Cutting Class," December 14, 2000), so if no further windfalls come along, popular programs will have to be cut and small schools may one day be consolidated.

But Cook sees nothing wrong with the way the district communicated the possible cuts to the public.

"The bottom line is that if those numbers hadn't changed, we would have had to make those cuts," he says. "Everyone is going to be alarmed by these things, but they would have been more alarmed if we had rolled out a budget with major reductions later in the year."

 
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