Steamboat School District uses new budget method

Officials take on different tactic amid funding uncertainty

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— The Steamboat Springs School District is taking a new approach to budgeting.

In recent years, Steamboat has started with the current year’s budget and looked for ways to cut. Because the district still is waiting to see what the state will trim from K-12 education in 2011-12, though, each Steamboat program manager is drafting three different budgets — at 90 percent, 96 percent and 100 percent of current-year funding.

It’s a process Superintendent Shalee Cunningham calls “performance-based” budgeting. She said it’s going well so far.

“I like it because it allows the staff to tell us what they need or don’t need at a reduction level to operate,” she said. “It empowers staff and I very much like that bottom-up approach.”

Last year, Cunningham and Finance Director Dale Mellor met with faculty and staff at each school, met with parent groups and took feedback at Steamboat Springs School Board meetings when trying to figure out how to cut about $1.8 million from the district’s 2010-11 budget.

Mellor said the performance-based budgeting process allows teams of staff members to take a hard look at what they need. He and Cunningham are meeting with program managers — directors and principals — this month to answer questions as they draft the three versions of their budgets.

“I think it’s great,” said Michele Miller, who splits time as assistant principal at Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools, about the budgeting

process. “It’s really given us an opportunity to look at what’s working and what’s not working in programming. It gives us a chance to really look at what we need. In the past, we just rolled over our budgets.”

The district had forecast having to cut about $1.6 million, or about 8.5 percent, after Gov. John Hickenlooper last month proposed a $332 million net reduction to K-12 education. However, the Colorado revenue forecast that was released indicated that unexpected income tax revenue generated an additional $161.3 million for the state.

Henry Sobanet, Hickenlooper’s budget director, said in a news release that the revenue “may mitigate” some budget cuts. If the proposed cuts were reduced, Sobanet said, “Hickenlooper’s first choice for scaling back reductions would be in K-12 education.”

Mellor said whatever the state decides to cut, the district would match with the program managers’ budgets.

Cunningham said the program managers will submit drafts of their budgets to her and Mellor by April 5. She said they will present them to the District Accountability Committee for review April 12. The School Board is scheduled to review the budgets in May.

Steamboat Springs High School Principal Kevin Taulman said the performance-based budgeting process is leading to conversations that didn’t happen in past years because programs often were funded at the level of the previous year without much evaluation.

Taulman added that the process also will help prepare the district for cuts the district expects to make in the future.

“Things might change in a year, but at least you’ve had conversations about where priorities are,” he said.

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