Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.School boards across Colorado are finalizing 2011-12 budgets this month, with most putting a final stamp of approval on cuts not quite as deep as district leaders feared in February.

Denver Public Schools unfroze $10 million for schools, the Adams 12 Five Star district put back 22 teaching jobs and Aurora Superintendent John Barry assured staff in a parting-for-summer email that furlough days were not on the horizon – at least for next year.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed state budget, released Feb. 15, slashed K-12 funding by $332 million and sent district leaders scurrying to adjust numbers that had been based on former Gov. Bill Ritter’s more upbeat projections.

By May 6, when Hickenlooper finally signed the state budget, legislative negotiations had dropped K-12 funding cuts to $227.5 million – or an average reduction of $344 per student instead of nearly $500.

“When we first heard the governor’s original proposal, we threw everything on the table – bus fees and a lot of other things that we didn’t want to have to take a look at,” said Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Tustin Amole. “And then when the final numbers came in, we were relieved that as serious as those cuts are, they didn’t have to be even deeper.”

Here’s a look at the roller-coaster budget ride endured by the state’s six largest school districts in recent months, and where they’re ending up:

Jefferson County: Sticking to the plan

Leaders of the state’s largest school district held a press conference March 11 to announce a grim roster of reductions, including:

Jeffco’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$475
  • Final budget: -$335
  • Closing two elementary schools
  • Cutting all employees’ pay by 3 percent
  • Reducing 212 jobs across the district
  • Trimming two days from the school year
  • Charging students to ride school buses
  • Suspending a popular outdoor lab program

School board president Dave Thomas said the district “had very few choices” in its efforts to cut nearly $40 million.

“None of them were pleasant,” he said. “This is a lesson in frugality, unfortunately.”

On May 5, Jeffco became the first of the large metro area districts to approve its 2011-12 budget. But while state K-12 funding had improved, little had changed in Jeffco’s plan.

Jeffco School Board Member Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at today's press conference.
Jeffco School Board Member Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at March 11 press conference announcing cuts.

Lorie Gillis, Jeffco’s chief financial officer, said those meeting at the employee summit where the original cuts were sketched out had anticipated some changes in the state funding picture.

But because the district had been drawing down its reserves in prior years to close budget gaps and avoid deep cuts, she said they decided to move ahead with the plan.

“Our gap is not only closing the reduction in revenues from the state but it’s also balancing and actually reducing that level of reserve spend-down,” Gillis said. “We want to close the gap we’ve been using reserves for.”

Board members did tweak some parts of the original March budget proposal, including lowering the annual fees for students to ride buses from $150 to $100 for neighborhood schools. They also agreed to keep the outdoor lab schools open, after a community fund drive raised about $300,000.

Denver: Unfreezing dollars for schools

In January, Denver Public Schools announced $10 million in increased funding for schools, citing central-office budget cuts, record enrollment increases, savings from a 2008 pension refinancing and the winning of more than $80 million in grants over two years from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

After Hickenlooper’s budget proposal dropped, the district put the plan on hold.

“We effectively froze that $10 million,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “And when the changes were made this spring, we unfroze that $10 million.”

DPS funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$520
  • Final budget: -$366

DPS uses student-based budgeting, meaning dollars follow students. So schools with enrollment declines will not see more money.

Still, “No furloughs, no layoffs,” Boasberg said, referring to steps being taken by some struggling districts. Instead, “We will expect to see a significant net increase in teaching positions in the Denver Public Schools next year.”

The additional funding could hire about 150 teachers, though those decisions are up to schools so “it could be more, it could be less,” he said.

DPS is projecting an enrollment increase of nearly 1,700 students for fall, with slight increases in its population of English language learners and those participating in the federal lunch subsidy program, an indicator of poverty.

Since 2005, the district’s enrollment has grown by more than 8 percent, topping 78,000 students this past fall.

Final budget approval is scheduled June 23. Teacher pay is not on the table – both the union and school board signed off on a two-year contract in May 2010 that essentially freezes compensation for 2011-12.

Douglas County: Dipping into reserves, asking for help

Douglas County’s finance chief released two budget plans in March – one black and one blue.

And while a formal vote isn’t expected until June 21, all indications are the black budget will be chosen.

Dougco’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$465
  • Final budget: -$330

The key difference between the two is the black budget draws more from district reserves, in anticipation of putting tax increases for schools before voters in November.

As the state funding picture has fluctuated, the major change in the black budget has been fewer dollars coming from reserves.

Friday, the district issued a news release stating Superintendent Liz Fagen will recommend two ballot questions – tax hikes for building and operating schools – to school board members.

Board members would formally vote on the tax questions in July or August, though they’ve been discussing the idea for months while getting advice from bond consultants and political gurus such as former state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

Polling data

Polling data released Friday shows a fight ahead. The survey of 500 registered voters found 52 percent opposed to an increase for operating dollars, though that number improves slightly if the increase drops off after five years.

In fact, the only scenario under which an operating increase tilts in favor of passage is when the question specially states the money “would not include the funding” of vouchers.

A polling question about vouchers found mixed but strong reactions – 39 percent strongly in favor and 36 percent strongly opposed.

“We are certainly aware that this is a tough climate when it comes to elections,” said district spokesman Randy Barber.

Other steps in the black budget include reducing funding for middle and high schools by $100 per student. But the bulk of the $21 million in savings would come from pulling $13 million from reserves.

The district is still in negotiations with its teachers’ union.

Cherry Creek:  Reaching into the classroom

In March, as state lawmakers scrambled to find ways to improve Hickenlooper’s K-12 funding plan, Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Mary Chesley testified the cuts could be significant.

Instead of the “50-ish” loss of staff in 2010-11, she told members of the Senate Education Committee, it would be closer to “300-ish.”

“We will no longer be able to have our cuts just make it to the classroom door,” Chesley said. “They will be well within the classrooms.”

The final budget figures have softened the blow, though Cherry Creek school board members will vote June 13 on a budget that includes 150 fewer jobs.

Ch. Creek funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$480
  • Final budget: -$340

Of the 150, 72 positions are gone due to increasing the student to licensed staff ratio in schools from 18:1 to 18.5:1.

That doesn’t equal class size – that ratio is how schools are staffed, not how classrooms are filled – but it likely will mean some classes in some schools are slightly larger.

Licensed staff includes teachers but also counselors, librarians and social workers and schools decide how to best use their dollars.

“It will look different at every school because each school is given their staffing ratio and then they will determine their needs based on their individual community,” Amole, the district spokeswoman said. “It might mean one extra student somewhere in the building in a classroom.”

The loss of those 70 jobs will be through the non-renewal of probationary teachers working on annual contracts, she said. Virtually all of the total 150 jobs going away will be handled through retirements and normal attrition.

Administrations and other non-classroom employees will have their salaries frozen for a second year.

Teachers, in the second year of a two-year contract in 2011-12, will receive a 2 percent raise for another year of experience but no cost-of-living increase.

Adams 12 Five Star: Adding back teaching jobs

The district serving Northglenn and Thornton became one of the first in the metro area to begin charging students to ride the bus in 2010-11, along with cutting 188 jobs.

Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski: "It's tough. I haven't slept a lot."
Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski announcing his budget plan March 16.

Earlier this year, Superintendent Chris Gdowski announced similarly tough cuts for 2011-12, reducing another 180 positions including 94 classroom teachers.

May’s better budget news dropped the district’s gap from $30 million to $25.5 million and allowed it to add back 22 teachers and three administrative jobs.

In addition, the district increased funding for librarian or media center help from 1.5 hours to 5 hours per day and to put $550,000 into reserves in preparation for next year’s round of cuts.

Board members are expected to vote June 15 on the revised plan, which still includes a reduction of 164 jobs.

Adams 12 funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$470
  • Final budget: -$333

Joe Ferdani, the district’s communications manager, said the teaching positions added back include 15 in elementary schools, four in middle schools and three in high schools. The administrative jobs include an assistant director to help with a growing demand for special education services.

Ferdani said the district has yet to finalize its 2011-12 contract with its teachers’ union though officials are hopeful that negotiations will be complete by the budget vote later this month.

Aurora: Preparing for recurring cuts

Nearly 100 teachers, parents and community members attended a town hall meeting on the Aurora schools budget in late February, when the estimated gap was $25 million.

They talked about cost-cutting measures included staff furlough days and increasing employee health insurance premiums, just a few of the 45 cost-cutting options developed by the district.

Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.
Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.

On May 18, with the school year winding down, Barry told Aurora staff that the budget gap had dropped to $20 million and he was “confident” that four furlough days would not be necessary.

“I wanted you to have that information before we ended the school year,” he wrote in an emailed update.

The budget up for final approval on June 21 does not include furlough days. But it does include a delay in implementing new curriculum, no raises for staff and new health insurance co-pays for employees.

Casey Wardynski, the district’s chief finance officer, said the better state budget news in May has been mixed with bleaker financial news on other fronts – local property tax collections are down and there’s concern about specific ownership tax because of sluggish car sales.

“So the state picture is a little brighter but the local revenue picture is a little darker,” he said.

Aurora’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$512
  • Final budget: -$361

Wardynski, who now puts the district’s budget gap at $24 million, said he’s focused on cutting recurring costs so the annual reductions are easier to bear.

For example, the district has shifted expenses from its general fund to other funds to alleviate the pressure. Metering schools to get a better understanding of utility costs revealed about 20 percent of such costs typically come from the kitchen. So the district has begun charging a share of utility expenses to its nutrition services fund, a separate and self-sustaining fund in many districts.

“We may be in a tough budget situation for many years,” he said. “Let’s do things that yield recurring savings … If we have to go through the pain, let’s not go through the same pain next year.”

About two-thirds of the $24 million gap is coming from changes that will yield recurring savings each year, he said. Still, much of the final third is coming from reserves – about $9 million.

“Children get one shot at an education,” Wardynski said. “Our country is going to have good times and bad times. Education shouldn’t fluctuate based on fluctuations in the economy.”