Fund Board approves two teachers

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— Considering its previous voting record, the fact that the Education Fund Board approved on Wednesday a funding request for two elementary school teachers probably won't come as much of a surprise.

But who supported it will.

Fund Board member and Steamboat Springs Board of Education President Paul Fisher, who has been a staunch opponent of continuing to fund extra teachers to lower class sizes in district schools, reversed course Wednesday and supported the Educational Excellence Commission's revised request. The two teachers will be used to lower class sizes at both Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools.

Though Fisher said his principle objections to the smaller class size issue have not changed, his vote was swayed by the Educational Excellence Commission's willingness to compromise.

"I still firmly believe in all the rationale that I've stated previously about small class size," Fisher said at the meeting. "I think we're at a point of return that's diminished. I still believe we have small class sizes where we're getting results.

"But in the spirit of applauding the Educational Excellence Commission in dealing with compromise -- (compromise) I think should have been done in the beginning -- I'm going to applaud that effort and vote 'yes.'"

The two-teacher request was approved by an 8-1 vote. Fund Board and School Board member Tom Sharp was the lone dissenter.

The Educational Excellence Commission previously requested funding for a two-teacher reserve and four teachers to lower class sizes. The commission eventually revised its requests to three elementary school teachers. That request was approved by the Fund Board, which then offered the funding as a gift to the School Board.

At its May 19 meeting, the School Board voted against accepting the gift. At the time, Fisher and board member Paula Stephenson expressed concern that the teachers would become institutionalized -- which means the district would have to pick up their salaries in future years.

On Wednesday, Fisher said he would compromise his previous position out of respect for the compromises made by the Educational Excellence Commission.

"They went from (requesting) seven teaches and no grant writer and no (additional) help on the (traditional half-funding of district small class size) to two teachers, a little extra on the half-funding and the grant writer," Fisher said.

Fisher declined to say whether he would support the two teachers when the gift comes before the School Board for approval, but his Fund Board vote will undoubtedly be perceived by some as indication he will. Fund Board and School Board member Pat Gleason also voted in favor of the request. Gleason and School Board member Tami Havener voted for the three-teacher gift at the School Board's May 19 meeting.

The Fund Board also approved Wednesday an Educational Excellence Commission request to fund the district grant writer from Fund Board reserves.

Furthermore, the commission presented a first reading request to gift an additional $49,000 to the school district to increase the Fund Board's usual $350,000 half-funding of small class sizes across the district. The Fund Board and School Board have already accepted the $350,000 gift, which is traditionally given to help defray salary costs the district has incurred from increasing its number of teachers. District officials have said actual half-funding of small class size would cost the Fund Board about $630,000.

The Educational Excellence Commission must bring the request back for a second reading before the Fund Board can vote to approve it. However, Fisher asked his fellow Fund Board members to conduct a "straw vote" so he could gauge the board's interest in accepting the gift.

If approved by the Fund Board and accepted by the School Board, the $49,000 could have a significant impact on district personnel cuts. Superintendent Cyndy Simms has recommended cutting $208,000 in district personnel costs to eliminate a projected deficit of $332,000. A $49,000 gift to the district would mean $49,000 less in job cuts, but because the district must approve its preliminary budget by the end of June, the School Board won't know whether it will be receiving the gift.

According to Wednesday's straw vote, the Fund Board will approve the request if it is brought back for a second reading. Several Fund Board members expressed concern that the $49,000 isn't going directly to small-class related expenses, but rather to help the district in its budget cuts, which don't involve any classroom teachers.

The earliest the Educational Excellence Commission could bring the $49,000 gift back to the Fund Board for approval is at the board's July meeting.

The Fund Board allocates the city's half-cent sales tax to Steamboat Springs School District programs and projects. The Fund Board votes to accept funding recommendations from its three commissions.

If the Fund Board approves a funding recommendation, it is presented to the School Board as a gift.

The School Board must vote to accept the gift before the project or program can take effect.

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