Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Springs School District's recent spending of a $143,000 budget surplus is drawing fire from the district's teachers union.
The tension between district administration and the teachers could spur the School Board on Nov. 19 to consider adopting a new policy giving it more control over how the district spends large surpluses in the future.
The district used much of this year's surplus — which was the result of an enrollment increase of more than 22 full-time students — to fund the additional personnel administrators say the school system needed to accommodate its growing student population.
But some of the district's expenditures, including $12,000 for telephone and internet service expenses and a planned expense of up to $9,829 to hire a part-time administrative assistant at the district's front office, aren't sitting well with several teachers who think the dollars could be better spent elsewhere.
In a letter she sent last week to Superintendent Brad Meeks and the School Board, Steamboat Springs Education Association President Babette Dickson charged that “much of the money seems to be going to expenses that have no impact” on students.
She said teachers were especially surprised and disappointed to see the district advertise a position that was dropped from the school district's budget last spring after it faced heavy criticism from parents, teachers and members of the School Board.
“It was not popular knowing we had some budget cuts to do last year,” Dickson said about the district's most recent proposal to hire an administrative assistant to work 25 hours a week in the district's central office.
Dickson and members of the SSEA plan to address the School Board about their concerns next week.
Meeks on Monday defended the district's spending of the surplus, saying every item being funded is a necessary priority for the district.
He said the surplus spending was done with careful input from the district's principals starting in the summer.
“Our primary focus is on the buildings, and I think if you take a look at (the list of surplus spending), it supports that,” Meeks said.
Asked about teachers' criticism of the reintroduction of the administrative assistant position, Meeks said it remains a critical need.
“Even though we couldn't address adding the clerical position in the spring, it doesn't mean we don't have needs here,” he said ”What ends up happening is our directors spend a lot of time copying, folding and organizing notebooks for meetings. It's not an efficient use of their time to do those things.”
The new position was posted Nov. 1 but it hasn't been filled.
In addition to potentially funding the clerical position, the surplus this year has funded an additional reading section at Steamboat Springs Middle School, an additional kindergarten teacher, a long-term substitute teacher at Yampa Valley High School, and $11,000 worth of teacher salary increases.
About $25,000 of the surplus remains unspent.
Also drawing concern from teachers is what the surplus isn't being used to cover.
The district this year saw its nursing staff at the schools drop to a level that sometimes leaves no medical staff at the buildings.
Dickson said the situation has worried some teachers who have students with conditions like diabetes and asthma, and it could become a potential liability issue for the district.
“It seems imperative, for liability concerns, that each of our buildings be staffed appropriately and professionally,” Dickson wrote to Meeks.
The district contracts with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association to provide its nursing staff, which this year includes two nurses and two health aides at a cost of $166,000.
Meeks said the district has been meeting monthly with the VNA and is in negotiations over the service levels that declined this school year partly because the VNA hasn't been charging the district enough to cover the entirety of its services.
“We want to make sure (the contract with the VNA) is covering all of our needs in the district,” Meeks said.
Board ponders changes
The teachers union's concern over the surplus spending has School Board President Brian Kelly pondering whether board members should have had more control over how the district spent the extra revenue.
“It's an unusual circumstance,” Kelly said Monday. “There's a significant issue there with the amount of money and how you should go about dividing that amount. The question before us is whether it should go back to the budget process, and if so, what's the limit on” the amount of a surplus the district can spend before it seeks approval from the School Board.
The School Board has not formally approved any of the surplus spending. Instead, they have been provided with two budget updates tracking the spending. They will approve an amended version of their 2012-13 budget in January.
Under the board's policy, unexpected expenditures greater than $25,000 must be approved by the board, and Kelly said it needs to discuss whether it should adopt a new policy to give it more oversight on the surplus spending.
He added that he felt $143,000 was a large enough sum of spending to require some sort of board action.
Still, he said he recognized the district's need to spend the money at its discretion on time-sensitive needs such as adding an additional teacher to accommodate increased enrollment.
“We might come up with some methodology for an expedited review because the district's need to spend this money might be immediate,” he said.
Meeks said he planned to meet with Dickson and other members of the SSEA before the next board meeting on Monday
In previous years, he said the SSEA had more input on the surplus revenue because it didn't finish contract negotiations for raises and benefits packages until after the district knew how much extra revenue it would receive from enrollment increases.
But this fall, the SSEA didn't need to negotiate with the district because it agreed to a two-year salary and benefits package last year during those negotiations that awarded district employees $1 million in raises over two years.
Meeks said the one-year reprieve from the bargaining table gives teachers more peace of mind knowing they would receive salary increases, and district officials more latitude to spend the surplus revenue.
Dickson said she hopes teachers eventually gain a stronger voice in the district's process to allocate the surplus each year.
“We definitely hope they understand where we are and that we have a different view on what we need,” she said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com