Steamboat Springs It’s what they feared and expected but hoped wouldn’t happen.
Gov. Bill Ritter announced this month the possibility of cutting $260 million from public K-12 funding in his proposed 2010-11 budget. One local school district official said if the cut comes to fruition, it will be “devastating.”
In a news release, Ritter asked everyone to “share in the sacrifice.” He said next year’s budget is “our most challenging yet,” despite closing unprecedented shortfalls in the past year.
“I’m continuing to make tough choices from very limited options — even while the demand for many services is skyrocketing,” Ritter said.
The $260 million proposed K-12 cut, or 6.1 percent of the funding provided to the state’s schools, significantly would affect Routt County school districts, the officials said.
According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, the county school districts’ share of the cuts would be $980,065 for Steamboat Springs, $230,065 for Hayden and $221,576 for South Routt.
“That’s devastating,” Steamboat Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said. “That will definitely mean prioritizing programs, which frankly we’ll have to do in next year’s budget anyway.”
Hayden Superintendent Greg Rockhold said the cut “would severely hamper us in completing our task as educators.”
South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader called the proposed cut “bad news” but said there was a silver lining for the district.
“What’s good is we got a number to deal with,” he said. “We knew there would be cuts but didn’t have a number.”
Ritter’s office has called the proposed $260 million cut a 4.6 percent decrease statewide. But Education Department officials said it actually would amount to a 6.1 percent when increased student numbers and statutory requirements are factored in.
State Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed cut when the legislature reconvenes in January. He said unless someone comes up with a creative solution to find $260 million elsewhere to help reduce the more than $1 billion estimated deficit in the 2010-11 budget, they’ll have to make that cut.
“With K-12 education representing 43 percent of the general fund, I don’t know how to fill the hole we’ll need to fill without going to K-12,” he said. “It’s unfortunate but necessary.”
Light on funding
Colorado already is in the bottom five states nationally in per-pupil funding, said Tracie Rainey, the executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project.
The Colorado School Finance Project was created in 1994 to compile, collect and distribute research-based information and data on topics related to school finance, according to its Web site.
Citing U.S. Census data of local school finances in 2006-07 — the most recent data available — Rainey said Colorado, at $8,167, spent $1,499 less per K-12 pupil than the national average. The Census data indicated that in 2006-07, New York provided the highest K-12 per-pupil funding, at nearly $16,000. The lowest was Utah, which provided $5,683 per student.
Rainey said although it hasn’t been determined how Ritter’s proposed cut would affect each school district in the state, the proposed $260 million cut amounted to about $400 per student.
“If you look at how far below the national average we already are and then make that significant of a cut, you’re looking at severely dismantling the current system we have,” she said.
Rainey said the proposed funding decrease would result in larger class sizes and cuts of programs and services students rely on.
According to Department of Education numbers, Routt’s estimated per-pupil funding for 2009-10 is $8,819.28 in Hayden, $7,239.77 in Steamboat and $9,090.44 in South Routt. Per-pupil funding starts at a base of $5,507.68 for this school year, and additional funding is determined by evaluating factors such as cost of living, district size and at-risk student population.
Cunningham said Ritter’s proposed 2010-11 cut would be in addition to what the district cut this year. She said Steamboat cut $200,000 to $300,000 from the 2009-10 budget and is looking at more cuts next year.
“We have made reductions from last year to this year, so we have already begun this process,” Cunningham said.
And she said the proposed cut is the second hit the district will face in the coming years.
Cunningham said less sales tax revenue this year also would affect each Routt County district’s ability to receive money from the Education Fund Board, which determines how to distribute revenue from the city’s half-cent sales tax. Last fall, Steamboat voters approved a ballot measure for Hayden and South Routt to apply for gifts from the Fund Board. Both districts received money last year.
The city’s sales tax collections were down 19.9 percent in September compared with the same month a year ago, according to sales tax figures released Tuesday. Steamboat’s sales tax collections are down nearly 17.4 percent year to date.
Prepping for solutions
Routt County district superintendents said they’ve begun to explore where to cut. But they said it was too early to tell where reductions would come.
Cunningham said Steamboat, as it did with this year’s budget, would explore ways to cut as much as possible while “staying as far away from the classroom as possible.”
Rockhold said Hayden would try to avoid cuts that would affect students. He said it is important to note that the legislature still has to decide whether to approve Ritter’s recommendation. But he said an Department of Education official who met with Western Slope school districts recently in Grand Junction said next school year would be a “wild and bumpy ride.”
South Routt has begun discussing where and what it could cut in 2010-11, Mader said. He said the district likely would work to develop alternatives regarding what could be cut and could increase fees to generate additional revenue. Mader said that information would be discussed among the district’s administration, the school board and with members of the community.
Despite not knowing what might be cut, Mader said South Routt is moving forward knowing there’s likely no escape from Ritter’s proposed K-12 cut next year.
“We don’t know what the legislature’s going to do, but we assume these are the cuts,” Mader said. “We’ll go forward assuming around this percentage. We aren’t going to dodge this.”