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Saving schools could mean cutting more jobs

By Randy Wyrick

rwyrick@vaildaily.com

EAGLE – The Eagle County school board Wednesday voted to keep all of the district’s elementary schools open, including Vail’s Red Sandstone Elementary School.



That will force deeper cuts in other areas, including jobs, district staff said. The school district could cut up to 100 jobs as it tries to bridge a $5.5 million budget shortfall it’s projecting for next year.

The more cuts the district makes in other areas, the more jobs it can save, said Phil Onofrio, the school district’s chief financial officer.



Each job is a face and a family, said school board member Tessa Kirchner, who spoke passionately about valuing faces over facilities.

“As we remove these items, it makes the number of people we fire go up and up,” Kirchner said. “I want to save as many of these valued people as we can.”

Keeping those schools open is “worth some of the faces,” said school board member Kate Cocchiarella.



“When this is done, 65 of our employees may be up for grabs,” said school board member Brian Nolan, who made the motion to keep all the elementary schools open.

The school district has five elementary schools in a relatively small geographical area between Edwards and Vail.

“Having four stronger schools makes more sense than having five slightly weaker schools with less programming,” said school board member Ross Morgan.

When the school board finished its 5-2 vote, applause and cheers broke out in the hallway. School board chairman Jeanne McQueeney quickly called for sensitivity and a reality check.

“By keeping those schools open we have to cut other things, and it could be people’s jobs,” she said.

Education is a labor-intensive industry and the local school district spends about 80 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits, school district officials said Wednesday.

“We can afford about $50 million in spending and we are trying to determine how to allocate that,” Onofrio said. “When you have $28 million in salaries and benefits, no matter where you cut it’s somebody’s job.”

A different idea

One local teacher proposed sliding-scale salary cuts that would help the school district cover almost half of next year’s $5.5 million budget shortfall.

Veteran Battle Mountain teacher and coach Dave Cope was one of several speakers during Wednesday’s school board meeting, which was so packed that it was moved to the Eagle town hall.

“This budget has been framed as a simple decision on a sliding scale, either cut 17 percent of our staff or keep the staff and cut 17 percent of their salaries, or find a midpoint that is a bit of both. I would like to propose another way,” said Cope, who has been teaching full-time in the district since 1996 and coaching since 1993.

As many others urged the school board not to close their school or cancel a program, Cope proposed a four-part plan that would cut $2 million:

1. A progressive pay cut shared across the entire district – the less you get paid, the smaller the cut, and the more you get paid, the bigger the cut. Cope calculated it would save $1.7 million.

2. Eliminate the stipend to mentor and master teachers, saving $300,000.

3. Use some reserve funds to cover part of the remaining shortfall.

4. Adjust class sizes, if necessary, to cover the rest.

“Our mission is educating every student for success, not furthering careers through education reform. I know we can get through this if we work together,” Cope said.

The $300,000 in master and mentor stipends would pay for five art teachers, Cope pointed out.

“Master and mentor stipends were great, but they were a luxury we can no longer afford,” Cope said.

The school district’s reserve fund at the end of this year will be just under $10 million, and the school board has said that’s where it should stay, said Phil Onofrio, the school district’s chief financial officer. State officials have also suggested that it stay at $10 million.

“The reserves have gone down from $16 million a few years ago, down to $10 million,” Onofrio said.

3B supporters have their say

Supporters for the school district’s defeated property tax increase showed up, admonishing those who refused to get involved, but are now begging that their schools and programs be spared the budget axe.

“I wish you had all been part of 3B,” Carolyn Keep told the packed crowd. “This board does not want to close any school. They want all our schools to be successful.”

Louise Funk, who spearheaded the property tax campaign, is now helping lead an effort to raise private money to offset some of the budget cuts.

“I’m sad to say this is how we have to do it because this community did not support the board of education, our schools and 3B,” Funk said.

The schools district’s Evening of the Stars has been canceled, Funk said, because of a lack of support from the community.

“It has become apparent that a big gala for teachers is not going to be well received.

It costs $40,000 and she said the money would be better used to fund education,” Funk said.

This would have been the 19th annual gala, Funk said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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