With public school enrollment declining throughout Northwest Colorado, area school districts would be wise to take note of what has happened in South Routt.
Soroco, the smallest school district in the area, made some difficult choices last week to address its growing financial issues. The district eliminated a principal and two teaching positions in order to save about $140,000 per year and preserve its dwindling reserve fund of $350,000.
The district will eliminate the teaching positions through attrition. Soroco Middle School Principal Mike Hare is losing his job.
"This is an economic crisis we are facing. We do have to do something differently," said Hare, who deserves credit for handling the situation with class and professionalism.
By eliminating the middle school position, the district also will change how it is configured, going from a three-campus district with an elementary, middle and high school to a two-campus district. The elementary school will house kindergarten through sixth grade, while the high school and middle school buildings will be combined to accommodate students in seventh through 12th grades.
Superintendent Steve Jones does not relish making the cuts, but he doesn't think the state or anyone else has shortchanged his district either.
"When you cut three certified people, it's never easy," Jones said. "But our board said let's balance our expenditures with our revenues, and we have done that. We still have a pretty good situation here."
The simple fact is that enrollment in the South Routt School District has gone from 483 students in 1997 to a projection of 415 next year, a 16 percent drop in six years. Since state funding is largely determined on a per-student basis, the cuts in Soroco were inevitable.
Jones expects enrollment to continue declining, meaning more cuts are likely. The district, he said, has to be creative about the programs it can offer. Unlike other school districts trying to fund smaller class sizes, Jones has classes that are so small now, the district has to evaluate whether it can continue to offer them.
School districts in Hayden and Craig can understand Soroco's pain. Craig's enrollment is down 10 percent since 1997. Hayden's is down 7 percent. Both districts have made sacrifices to accommodate the declines.
Steamboat, whose enrollment is down about 2.5 percent, has been fortunate so far to avoid dramatic cuts. The half-cent sales tax dedicated to education has been of significant benefit. But the district needs to be careful given the path it is headed down.
This year, Steamboat is facing demands that it provide a Montessori charter school, lower class sizes further, change teacher pay and add elementary school Spanish. Each of those costs money.
At some point, districts with declining enrollments have to match expectations of what they can do with the fiscal reality of what they can afford. That point may come sooner rather than later for Steamboat. When it does, the district need only look 20 miles to the south for an example of how to make difficult but fiscally responsible choices.