As area school district enrollments continue to decline, expectations for our public schools must be adjusted, particularly as they apply to small class-size.
Last week, the South Routt School District announced it anticipates a loss of another five students and $60,000 in state funding for next year. After cutting a principal and two teaching positions last year, the district likely will have to cut two support staff positions for next year. Also last week, the Hayden School Board discussed eliminating an elementary school teaching position because of declining enrollment there.
The Steamboat Springs School District will eliminate two elementary teaching positions, one at Soda Creek and one at Strawberry Park. These are positions that were funded for one year only by the Education Fund Board.
School enrollment has been on the decline throughout Northwest Colorado for a decade. Moffat County, Hayden and South Routt all have seen declines of 10 percent or more. Only Steamboat Springs has seen modest gains.
Fewer students means less state funding, and state funding is becoming even more precarious as the Legislature deals with the state's budget crisis. Amendment 23, which requires the state to increase public school funding by a specific amount each year, is being scrutinized for cuts as part of an overall revamping of the budget, which could include reform of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment.
Class sizes are an emotional issue for parents, who invariably would prefer their children's classes to be smaller. But at some point, school districts have to determine whether reducing class sizes -- by, say, five students -- is worth the cost.
Steamboat Springs School Board policy is to maintain an average student-to-teacher ratio of 20 to 1 throughout the district provided the Education Fund Board gives the district $350,000 for small class-size. To meet that goal for the 2004-05 school year, the Fund Board has agreed to provide the district $399,000.
While area districts must come to grips with class-size changes, there are other ways school districts can address the coming funding challenges. Some suggestions to consider:
n Expanding partnerships with Colorado Mountain College. At the high school level, there are courses and programs that districts should try to offer even if student participation is low, such as calculus and upper-level foreign languages. Several high school students already use CMC services, but can more be done to relieve the financial pressure on the public schools?
n Expanding cooperation among the area school districts. Are there courses, programs, professional development training etc. ... that all three county school districts can participate in jointly and share in the expenses?
n Examining administrative costs. Are there administrative and support services the school district provides that can be done more efficiently and with fewer personnel?
The financial challenges facing school districts in Northwest Colorado are significant and growing. The districts already have begun to tighten their belts. The challenge for the public -- particularly parents -- is to be understanding of the changes that inevitably must occur in our schools.