Eagle County schools safer in tough economy | VailDaily.com

Eagle County schools safer in tough economy

Lauren Glendenning
Eagle County, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Public schools in Eagle County, Colorado have the state constitution on its side when times get tough, so when a bad economy spares almost no one, the school district is generally safe.

Property taxes and state funds pay for local schools. When state revenues are down ” estimates for fiscal year 2008-09 are almost $100 million lower than the predicted amount budgeted, according to the Colorado Legislative Council ” the schools still collect their money.

“We’re better protected than any other government,” said Phil Onofrio, the Eagle County School District’s chief financial officer.

That doesn’t mean the district skates by in a bad economy ” there are secondary factors, like late property tax payments and an increase in students using free and reduced meals, that take their tolls on the schools.

Eagle County School District students receiving free and reduced meals went up from 1,200 students last year to 1,700 this year, said Onofrio.

The increase is generally covered by the state, but it does have a reverse effect on lunch fees that are collected, he said.

And property tax payments that trickle in late cause the school district to wait for money it has already budgeted. Onofrio said the district is already planning for late property tax collections because of the economy.

“We’ll eventually get our money, but it may be a while,” he said.

Karen Shaeffer, the county treasurer and public trustee, said the number of property liens sold went up almost 300 percent from 2006 to 2007. When people can’t pay their property taxes, the county places a lien on the property to ensure payment. This is called a tax sale ” there were 71 in 2006, and 186 in 2007. Shaeffer expects plenty more for 2008.

Another factor that could delay money reaching the school district is that Shaeffer’s office is understaffed, she said. She had one person quit and the position is frozen, making deadlines this year that much more difficult to meet, she said.

“In years past we’ve had a staff of 10; now we have a staff of eight, including me,” Shaeffer said. “Other county departments have doubled and tripled (in staff members over the last 10 years). This office has stayed consistent. It’s really a hardship.”

One thing the school district will be doing differently next year is assuming the district won’t grow at all. Budgets are based on the overall student population, which typically grows 3 percent to 4 percent every year, Onofrio said.

Assuming no growth means the district will essentially freeze the hiring of full-time employees. If employees leave, however, he said those positions would likely be filled.

“We’re marginally affected. The county and the towns are really hammered (in a bad economy),” Onofrio said. “When you have good times or bad times, kids still have to go to school.”

Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or lglendenning@vaildaily.com

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