School district unemployment payouts more than triple | SteamboatToday.com

School district unemployment payouts more than triple

Jack Weinstein

Steamboat Springs School District unemployment payouts

— This fiscal year, the amount of money the Steamboat Springs School District has paid in unemployment claims has more than tripled since 2008-09.

And the fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, is only half over.

This year, the district has paid nearly $46,000 on 20 claims. The district paid more than $13,000 on seven claims in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

"Whether someone quits, is fired or laid off, it doesn't matter anymore," Finance Director Dale Mellor said. "They're giving unemployment to everybody, no matter the reason for them leaving."

Mellor was referring to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which awards unemployment benefits to people who qualify. The district is appealing two claims, Human Resources Director Anne Mu­h­­me said.

Bill Thoennes, a Labor De­­partment spokesman, said recent legislation expanded unemployment benefit eligibility. He said unemployment now could be approved if someone voluntarily leaves a position under a few conditions. They include: leaving to follow a spouse, leaving to get away from domestic violence or leaving to care for an ill or disabled family member.

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Thoennes added that a person could even receive unemployment benefits if he or she was fired with cause if the employer doesn't provide a reason to the Labor Department for terminating the employee. For example, he said an employer may not provide that information if there is pending or expected litigation.

But according to the FAQ section of the Labor Department's Web site, "To be eligible to receive unemployment benefits, you must be unemployed through no fault of your own and must be able to work, be available for work, and be willing to seek and accept suitable work."

The district, as a political subdivision, doesn't pay unemployment insurance premiums but instead pays back regular unemployment insurance benefits, Thoennes wrote in an e-mail.

Unemployment benefits are paid every other week.

Muhme wouldn't say why the district is challenging the two claims. She also declined to provide names of the former district employees seeking unemployment benefits, citing personnel reasons.

However, Muhme said 61 full-time faculty and staff members left the district for various reasons after the 2007-08 school year. She said that included voluntary departures, layoffs and firings. After the 2008-09 school year, 31 employees left the district.

Despite the dramatic increase in claims, the district anticipated the unemployment expense. It budgeted to pay $65,000 in unemployment during the current school year, Mellor said. In his 10 years with the district, Mellor said that was the most the district had budgeted for unemployment and that he expects the district to reach that amount by the end of the year.

He said it was too early to determine how much the district would budget next year for unemployment but that he expected another large number because of the estimated $2 million in budget cuts expected for 2010-11.

The Colorado Association of School Boards, an advocacy group for school districts across the state, doesn't keep statistics about statewide district unemployment. But spokesman Brad Stauffer said it's safe to say the unemployment trend among school district employees will increase in the next two years.

"When predictions are for 20 percent cuts over the next three years, there's no way districts can do that without cutting personnel," he said in an e-mail. "Generally, 80 percent of school budgets are for personnel costs. There just isn't enough money in the other 20 percent of the budget to make those kinds of cuts."

Gov. Bill Ritter last year proposed to cut statewide K-12 public education funding next year by $260 million, or 6.1 percent. The Colorado Department of Education is telling districts to expect cuts closer to 10 percent, local school officials have said.

In addition to teacher and staff layoffs, Stauffer said the "unprecedented cuts" have other consequences.

"They could include higher class sizes, reduced services for students, program elimination, transportation changes, schedule changes, reduced benefits for remaining employees, and the list goes on," he said.