Schools face tough choices

Board considers controversial budget plan in face of declining enrollment

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Enrollment in Hayden schools has been shrinking, and class sizes along with it.

The trend is particularly evident at Hayden Valley Elementary School, where some classes have as few as 12 to 15 students.

That could change if the Hayden School Board next week approves a list of proposed budgetary changes for the 2005-06 school year that include staff cuts at the elementary school.

The School Board and district administrators have grown increasingly uncomfortable with enrollment, which has dropped by 91 students since 1998, despite high expectations for development and growth in Hayden.

The board is facing the tough reality that it must adjust spending to prevent its already small reserve-operating budget from disappearing.

"Without the recovery happening as quickly as it was projected, we're at a point where we're having to make smarter decisions for now so we don't end up being more vulnerable in tough fiscal times," School Board member Brian Hoza said. "We've tried to suspend or delay these kinds of decisions as much as possible."

In addition to a 10 percent reduction in all district budgets, proposed changes would result in two fewer classroom teachers. The district also would lose a full-time certified media specialist.

In March, the board decided not to hire a principal at the elementary school and instead named teacher Rhonda Sweetser as building administrator.

The board and administrators say the effects of the proposed changes on students will be minimal considering the already small class sizes.

Even though some parents hate to see the intimate classes go, they agree it's a luxury they can afford to lose.

"Even losing a teacher or two, we are still are going to have reasonable class sizes," Kathy Hockett said. "Even though it directly affects my son, I understand it."

However, parents such as Ann Willingham worry the academic quality at the elementary school will suffer and question the need for more reserves.

Instead, the district should be focusing on why some Hayden students attend nearby school districts and whether Hayden's proposed budget reduction measures will make Hayden less attractive to new students, she said.

"They are going to lose more students than they gain because they are going to be cutting the programs students want," Willingham said. "Why should parents bring their kids to Hayden?"

Bodies and dollars

Although there have been some fluctuations in enrollment, the most dramatic has occurred at the kindergarten level. Next year's kindergarten class is expected to have only 24 students -- which will come 20 bodies shy of replacing the 44 seniors graduating this year.

For the past few years, the district has been buffered somewhat from the economic effects of its declining enrollment because of a clause in the state finance formula that allows districts to average four years of enrollment figures for funding purposes. But with a steady decline in students since 2003, those averages are less and less helpful. The decline will mean a loss of about $40,000 for the 2005-06 school year.

The district would need to gain as many as 15 new students a year to keep enrollment steady for the next six years, superintendent Mike Luppes said.

For several years, the Hayden School District's spending has outpaced its revenues because the School Board expected more families would move to Hayden.

The town of Hayden has revamped its master plan to prepare for growth that some say is inevitable because of the high cost of living in Steamboat Springs.

And although plans for at least two large residential subdivisions are in the works, it's clear that growth won't happen as soon as some residents expected.

"We deficit spent partially because we thought with proposed development, our enrollment would go up," School Board President Kurt Frentress said.

With more than $500,000 in reserve funds at the end of 2000, the gamble seemed reasonable because reserves are there, in part, to help pad fluctuating enrollment, he said.

With no new students, however, deficit spending threatens to whittle the district's reserves to less than $100,000 -- or about 2 percent of its total budget -- by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Ideally, the district would like its reserves or end-of-year fund balance at $400,000 to $500,000, or 7 percent to 8 percent of its total budget, Luppes said.

With their eyes those numbers, School Board members and administrators have scaled down their optimism for growth in Hayden, where the cost of living is still too high for many working-class families, Luppes said.

"We lose families every year because they just see they are not going to afford an 'affordable' $200,000 house," he said.

Many families live in Hayden for about two years then return to where they came from or move to places such as Moffat County, where the cost of living is more reasonable, Luppes said.

The Moffat County School District, however, has its own enrollment and budget concerns. Its student enrollment has dropped by about 350 students in the past decade, and almost half of that decline has happened in the past two years, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said.

"These last two years have been as steep a decline as we've witnessed within the last 20 years," he said.

Bergmann's district also has been deficit spending.

He expects its ending fund balance this school year will be about $6 million or 35 percent of its total budget. However, the district likely will spend down that balance by about $800,000 during the 2005-06 school year, he said.

Enrollment at Hayden's other neighboring district, the Steamboat Springs School District, is not in a steady decline, but it also isn't growing.

"Our enrollment has been fairly flat over the last several years, and we are anticipating it to stay fairly flat with no real growth," Superintendent Donna Howell said.

Proposed changes

Not hiring an elementary school principal and implementing other measures in the Hayden School District's budget reduction proposal would shave about $200,000 in spending.

Based on the plan, second-grade teacher Holly Hoskins' contract would not be renewed and fifth-grade teacher Robin Bush would move to Hayden Middle School where she would teach sixth-grade science and math.

Bush would be part of a reorganized middle school teaching structure that emphasizes sixth grade as more of a transition period for students.

At the elementary school, the changes likely will result in a combined second- and third-grade class and a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class.

The largest class size at the school would be 21 students, with most classes averaging 17 to 18 students, Luppes said. The class sizes would be comparable to other elementary schools in the area. Bergmann and Howell said most elementary school classes in their districts have fewer than 20 students. Their largest classes have 22 students.

Hayden's plan also calls for moving district media specialist Kevin Dellit into the middle school, where he would teach seventh- and eighth-grade math. Dellit helps students with computer research and also teaches technology-related classes.

Those duties would be limited by the changes, though he still will consult with two other library aids in the district.

Bush and Dellit volunteered for the transfers.

"I think a lot of these decisions are being made for the right reasons, and that really helps me stay optimistic going into the next school year," Bush said.

Paying in the future?

Parent Medora Fralick is among those parents who are confident the School Board sufficiently explored its options.

"I personally feel like the district and the board have done an excellent job of looking outside the box at things that haven't typically been tried," she said.

Some parents and teachers, however, argue the changes inevitably will affect academic quality in the elementary school.

Dellit, who has taught in the district 15 years, volunteered to leave the library to prevent more classroom teacher cuts. Still, he worries the district's already struggling technology program might suffer without a full-time media specialist.

"I think a lot of people feel like technology is not being integrated into the classroom," he said. "I think people are going over to Steamboat with their kids partially for that reason. We're kind of behind."

Dellit, who also is president of the Hayden Education Association, said staff's opinions vary about the district not hiring a full-time elementary school principal. Although Sweetser has brought valuable classroom experience to her role as building administrator, some teachers are concerned certain programs and goals may not be fulfilled, he said.

"If we are going to grow and we want to try and encourage people to come into the district, we need to have professional leadership," Dellit said. "Right now, we are just status quo."

Willingham, who almost has completed coursework for a master's degree in education, agrees. She questions the wisdom of trading staff for larger reserves, which basically amount to a savings account, she said.

"Why does the Hayden School District need a half-million put away for a rainy day?" she asked. "What kind of emergency justifies taking away from students?"

Instead of worrying about reserves, the district should be investigating why some students live in Hayden but attend school elsewhere.

About 27 Hayden students attend school in Steamboat Springs, Moffat County and South Routt, based on October 2004 enrollment reports to the Colorado Department of Education,

At the same time, the reports show 37 students from those districts attend school in Hayden.

"In most instances, we have visited with kids on why they've left the district," Luppes said. "Some leave for athletics. ... There are some that feel like they are unhappy with academics. It's a very wide variety of responses."

In some cases, there's only so much the district can do to keep students in its schools, Hoza said.

"Some of the things that might interest individuals going to other districts are items that aren't feasible for us to offer," he said. "Then it becomes a personal decision."

The School Board would rather focus its attention on academics, which can play a big role in attracting students, Frentress said.

"One thing to work on is CSAP scores. They aren't where we'd like them to be," he said. "I think people are looking at CSAP scores when deciding what school district to send their kids to."

Staying positive

School Board members, administrators, teachers and some parents worry that the many positive aspects of Hayden School District are being overshadowed by its challenges.

They say highly qualified teachers, an award-winning vocational program and tight-knit classrooms are just a few qualities that should be promoted and emphasized.

"Yes, some districts have more to offer as far as programs, but I think there are benefits of being in a small district," Bush said. "I think students are less likely to be left behind."

Hockett said the challenges of the past year, including administration changes and budget worries, have encouraged parents and staff to work together more, improving the morale in the district and particularly the elementary school.

"Regretfully, budget cuts have to happen periodically, but as a school united, you can grow from that," she said. "For some people change is hard, but change can also be good. To try to see beyond the issues, to how it can positively affect things, is really where I'm trying to focus, and I think that's where the district is going."

Hoza agreed.

"There's a whole lot of pride and respect and spirit in terms of the district," he said. "It really is a sense of the whole community working together. It's similar to what it's like to live in Hayden."

-- To reach Tamera Manzanares, call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com.

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