It is not often the Steamboat Springs School Board deems it necessary to present a viewpoint publicly, but after the editorial “Fund Board changes are welcome” in Wednesday’s Steamboat Today, it seems appropriate to inform the public of the financial status of the Steamboat Springs School District.
The general conception of the editorial was that Education Fund Board money should be used for “extras” and that the district should cover its operating expenses with general fund revenues. We wish that could be the case. Here is what has happened in the past five years of the Great Recession: Steamboat’s state funding per student has declined from $7,922 to $6,459. If our district was funded at the 2007-08 level, it would have $3,277,968 in additional revenue from the state. Today, total revenue serving 2,320 head count students is $21,070,740.
Meanwhile, a state-mandated increase in PERA (Public Employee Retirement Association) of 0.9 percent per year effectively has set aside $600,000 per year more than five years ago. Health insurance increases have ramped up from $1.335 million to $1.827 million. Add in the higher cost of diesel for our buses, gas for the other district vehicles and increased energy costs to heat our buildings, and there is a total loss of available revenue of close to $1.5 million, or 7 percent of the total budget. And this is not factoring in additional costs for salaries, worker’s compensation, etc. With those included, we are pushing 11 percent of the total budget.
Fund Board revenue peaked at about the same time as the state revenue, right before the Great Recession, at $4 million per year. Today, the annual Fund Board budget is $2.5 million. Roughly $2 million of this is awarded to Steamboat schools, with the rest going to the Soroco and Hayden school districts, community groups, innovation grants, a grants writer and Fund Board administrative expenses.
Five years ago, the reserve for the Fund Board was $2 million. Today, it is $500,000. Another effect of the Great Recession — sales tax revenue has declined. Additionally, the voters approved sharing the revenue with all Routt County school districts, and that is being done. We want to be clear: We have no issue with the sharing concept.
The bottom line is that the Steamboat Springs School District now is educating 12 percent more students with 15 percent less “available” dollars. Every family in America has been feeling this pinch for many of the same reasons.
And yet, the Steamboat district has increased academic achievement during this time. We now are “Accredited with Distinction” for three years in a row, are one of the top five districts in the state and have a middle school that has received national awards. And we are not content with stopping there. We want this district to be a national-caliber district and then take sight on the international standards. We have had these quiet conversations the past few years. This has not all happened by accident. There is a determination from the School Board, the community, the staff members and the administration to see what’s out there — to strive to be the best.
Let us get to the heart of the matter: 84 percent of the district’s budget goes to personnel. Seventy percent of the district’s budget is teachers. Only 6.6 percent of the budget is administration, well below the state average of 8 percent.
The district’s latest application to the Fund Board for funding in this time of limited financial resources is 65 percent personnel — in other words, 19 percent below the level we operate on in our general budget. We do not think it is good policy to apply for things we don’t consider essential. Nor does the Fund Board have a particular interest in funding items within the 16 percent of the budget that is nonpersonnel, such as buses, energy costs, water bills, etc. Its new mission statement states, “student-facing,” and that is why our application includes computers, iPads and teachers.
We are striving to put the best-prepared teacher in front of a class of suitable size and teach students the appropriate curriculum. This is where we try to put the tax dollars. To Steamboat, it doesn’t matter in many respects where the dollars come from — the general fund, title funds (federal), specific ownership tax (vehicles) or the Fund Board. We simply try to use the available dollars to the best of our ability to drive academic achievement.
Our district uses a performance-based budgeting process. It starts in the schools and departments, goes to the District Accountability Committee, the superintendent and then the School Board. These budgets are generated using parent, community, staff, principal and School Board input. We don’t generate five or six different budgets for all the different sources of income. The funding requests that we bring forward are requested with the goal of continually improving the education we offer along with meeting the intended end results of academic achievement.
The School Board has no issue with change as the editorial implies. We did not get to be one of the top districts in the state by being a bunch of shrinking violets. What we do have is an issue with unspecified requests such as “Red instead of Yellow,” “extras,” “Let’s try something different.” This is the heart of the frustration between the Fund Board and the Board of Education. If the Fund Board or any member of the community simply could tell anyone, in writing, what they think money should be spent on, that request then can be taken through the budgeting process to see how it weighs out against other requests. We have two public forums next week, at 5:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the high school.
What will the Steamboat Springs School District look like with the 90 percent budget? A reduction of 22-plus teachers, class sizes of more than 25 at the elementary schools and nearing 30 at the middle and high schools. Although class size is not everything in academic achievement, these certainly are levels above those in northern Europe and perhaps China and approaching Korea, the higher-ranked school systems in the international competition. The major factor is effectiveness of teachers, but at these thresholds, even the best teacher can struggle.
Finally, there is no indication whatsoever that the state funding levels from five years ago will return in the near future. Therefore, this district in particular will need to do what it must with all of its available revenues to ensure the academic achievement of its students.
Brian Kelly, Rebecca Williams, Robin Crossan, Denise Connelly and Jim Kissane are members of the Steamboat Springs School Board.