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School budget is in good shape

Barbara Schierkolk

This week, members of the Eagle County School District Board of Education will face one of their most important responsibilities – we will examine the proposed budget for the year ahead. I’m well aware that this job isn’t something that generates exciting headlines in this newspaper and that is, in fact, big news.

In the wake of a year that saw the Saint Vrain and Elizabeth school districts face fiscal crisis and the annual school appropriations bill stir spirited debate in the Colorado Legislature, our local taxpayers and their counterparts statewide are focusing more attention on school finance issues. We welcome that attention in Eagle County School District as we prepare our $37 million spending plan for next year

First and foremost, Eagle County School District is in strong financial condition.

In November, the district received its official comprehensive annual financial report (audit) compiled by the independent Certified Public Accounting firm McMahan and Associates.

The auditors reported that the district had conducted all of its financial operations within the parameters of state law and they accepted the budget figures noting “the general purpose financial statements … present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Eagle County School District Re-50J.”

The official audit confirmed that Eagle County School District used current revenue to fund all operating expenses. This means we are living within our available dollars.

The district’s operating expenditures last year were $33,352,510. Additionally, the district’s fund balance, cash that the district has available but has not allocated, is $11,898,135 as of June 30, 2002. That figure represents a very healthy fund balance. Like a personal savings account, it is money the district keeps on hand in the event of emergency. This current fund balance also includes the $3.1 million in Question 3-D funding, and that money is being held pending the outcome of the litigation.

We anticipate that the audit for the current year, 2002-03, will also demonstrate balanced spending and a healthy fund balance. The audit will be conducted this fall.

In looking ahead, the ECSD 2003-04 proposed budget is also in balance with projected revenues exceeding operational expenses. The budget includes the implementation of the Teacher Advancement Program in five additional schools, bringing the district total to 10, and staffing continued at current levels.

We have heard concerns expressed about the financial impact of TAP. Administration of the TAP program is financed through regular district salary dollars because it replaces the existing step salary schedule with a job description salary model. The school board did allocate additional money – $146,700 to pay for additional master/mentor teacher days and $168,000 for performance pay bonuses – at TAP schools. As you can see from the audit statement referenced above, that additional allocation did not, in any way, endanger the district’s financial health.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to St. Vrain Valley School District. In that district, not only did the audit predict a deficit in excess of $10 million but St. Vrain also owed the state $12 million from a no-interest loan program used in 2002. As reported throughout Colorado, until state Treasurer Mike Coffman approved a loan, St. Vrain officials could not even meet payroll obligations.

As for the future, we all know Colorado has experienced an economic slowdown. The state had to address a deficit of more than $500 million and education funding has been impacted. In looking at the state education picture, the Eagle County School District is in a much more solid position than many school districts because of our balanced budget and healthy fund balance. That’s why we keep that money in reserve.

Our budget for next year is a very conservative document, anticipating no enrollment growth. Enrollment drives K-12 public school finance in Colorado, because schools are funded using a per pupil formula. It has been decades since local schools failed to post any enrollment gains from one year to the next, but we are planning our 2003-04 spending using a no-growth model to ensure that we keep expenditures in line.

The board of education is committed to continuing Eagle County School District’s financial well-being. In this effort, we are very fortunate to have the expertise of our director of finance, Karen Strakbein. In addition to her long history of having clean audit reports, Karen has been repeatedly recognized by both the Association of School Business Officials and by the Government Finance Officers Association for excellence in budget preparation. Our district’s financial strength is a testimony to Karen’s dedication and we applaud her professionalism.

In closing, when one school district gets into hot water, headlines across the state trumpet the problem. making it sound like all school districts have similar issues. This is simply untrue.

Eagle County School District has repeatedly shown itself to be a responsible steward of the public’s money and is committed to continuing that distinction.

Barbara Schierkolk is the president of the Eagle County School Board.


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