To state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, making cuts in education is like the human body’s response to the shock of hypothermia.
“Your body will cut off circulation to the extremities so it can keep the core warm,” he said. “You might have to eliminate some things around the edges but still keep that core. You can’t lose the fundamentals, which are reading, writing and math.”
Thom Schnellinger, Moffat County High School principal, called the current budgetary crisis a “perfect storm.” Schools around the state have to look at ways to keep the integrity of public education’s core for the 2010-11 fiscal year, when Colorado will have to cut $1 billion from its budget.
A meeting Friday tried to do just that.
White met with school board members and administrators from around Northwest Colorado Friday at the Moffat County School District administration building for the Kids First Forum.
The work session offered an environment in which to discuss dealing with the impending cuts and prioritizing needs.
Moffat County School District alone is looking at the possibility of losing more than $1 million of its $20 million budget.
In small work groups, the teachers and administrators discussed problems and potential solutions to a situation none of them wanted to be in.
However, they all thought it was necessary to preserve two things: child learning and achievement.
Jo Ann Baxter, Moffat County School Board president, said with 85 percent of the district’s budget going to personnel costs, she didn’t see how the district could avoid cutting wages or eliminating positions.
“It’s counterproductive, it’s not what I want,” she said. “But I don’t see how we can keep away from it.”
However, Tim Corrigan, South Routt County School Board president, said he was set against any wage cuts for teachers, and emphasized the value of recruiting and retaining quality educators.
“I don’t want to talk about cutting wages, because I know we’d lose quality,” he said. “Don’t cut wages, cut programs. Wage cuts would result in decreased production and decreased morale.”
Corrigan’s table, for which Sunset Elementary School teacher Zack Allen was the spokesperson, made the consensus that a reduction in resources will not allow the district to continue funding everything it currently funds and still offer quality student programs.
The other groups agreed, with many conceding that entire programs might need to be cut.
“If we cut arts, that’s going to be a big problem,” Allen said, summarizing of his group’s discussion. “It won’t be popular at all but might it be better for students in the long run? We don’t know.”
One idea seemed to float to the surface of each of the discussions.
The consensus was that more time and effort needed to be spent on recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and almost everything outside of the core of reading, writing and arithmetic was on the table for potential cuts.
However, Schnellinger said the problem extended far beyond immediate budget concerns.
“We can’t just have a Band-Aid just to get us through another year,” he said. “It won’t work.”
After the discussion, White took questions and concerns from the crowd, and explained the situation he is currently in as a legislator.
He said the government’s hands have been tied by the Colorado Constitution, which, through the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, restricts the state from raising taxes and therefore revenue.
With K-12 education being the largest budget line item — 43 percent of the total state budget — White said there is a way to avoid cuts.
“It breaks my heart to have to look at K-12,” he said. “But I have a responsibility to the budget, too. It’s a very difficult environment we’re trying to muddle through.”
He called on the citizens of Colorado to step up and help make the change.
“Colorado doesn’t have a history of being very proactive,” he said. “Historically, they wait until the train hits the brick wall before they react to it.”
He said he has called for a constitutional convention in the past and will likely pursue the idea again so the state can work through the conflicting issues of TABOR and public education funding.
But he admitted there was a long way to go and many concerns to try and hash out along the way.
Local school board member Tony St. John said he had four children graduate in Moffat County, and he was disappointed that the discussion on what to cut even had to take place.
“What bothers me is that we’re affecting children,” he said. “We have to take care of No. 1, and that is our children and teachers’ salaries. Our kids are our future. Someday, they’ll be sitting where you are, Sen. White, and they need the education to get there.”