The first blow of the education budget-cut axe fell Friday when the Joint Budget Committee voted to recommend cutting $177 million in state aid to schools for the current, 2009-10 budget year.

The cuts would include $110 million that districts have been holding in reserve, plus $67 million more because districts now are expected to collect that much more in local taxes than was predicted when the state budget was approved last spring. (So, districts won’t lose the $67 million; they’ll just receive it from a different source than was expected. The $110 million is just under 2 percent of overall state support.)

And, the committee recommended not giving districts an additional $20 million they otherwise would have received because of slightly increased overall enrollment and a 10 percent increase in the number of at-risk students statewide.

The 6-0 vote was expected. Now, the proposals have to be approved by the full legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Ritter – all by Jan. 29. That’s because lawmakers agreed last spring that districts could spend the $110 million if the state doesn’t pull it back by Jan. 29.

The bill containing the trims reportedly will be introduced on Wednesday, the first day of the 2010 legislative session, in order to meet the deadline. Approval is considered likely, although not without some gnashing of teeth among public-education advocates. There was prolonged debate last spring over whether the holdback should be $110 million, a higher figure or be imposed at all.

And, committee discussion Friday hinted that the $177 million might not be the last cuts in the current schools budget, particularly if the March state revenue forecasts are bad.

Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, wondered aloud if the committee shouldn’t cut $150 million instead of the original $110 million. Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, said that while districts have been expected the $110 million to be pulled back, “If we cut another $40 million they would have to make it up in six months.”

Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge and JBC vice chair, said districts should know that the state’s financial picture “could get worse in March.”

The impact of the 2009-10 cuts will vary by district, depending on individual enrollment changes and other factors.

While making cuts in current year school aid will help control the size of cuts that will have to made in 2010-11, schools still face significant reductions next school year. Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder and JBC chair, said, “It’s really hard to say what the cuts will be specifically. … [But] we’re going to whack the heck out of schools next year.”

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