School funding to take a big hit
EAGLE COUNTY – After two years of budget cuts, local schools get to spend the same amount of money on instructing each student next year as they did in 2007, according to the school district’s audited financial statements.
But the cost of voter-approved debt drives the total cost to taxpayers much higher.
The Eagle County school district can spend up to $6,741.35 this year on direct instruction, under Colorado state guidelines. In 2007, direct instruction spending was $6,896.38.
Direct instruction money is what’s spent on kids in schools, and it does not include spending on things like administration, buildings, buses, computers and other hard costs, according to the definitions used statewide in Colorado.
But local taxpayers will spend more than $19,737 per pupil when everything is added up, say opponents of a proposed tax increase. That number includes $235,168,206 in Eagle County voter-approved bond debt and interest, which was borrowed over recent years to build and renovate local schools.
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That $19,737 per-pupil amount is the school district’s total budget, $114,932,316, divided by the 5,823 students in Eagle County’s 17 schools.
But direct instruction costs come out of the school district’s $52 million general fund, and that makes the cuts tougher, says Phil Onofrio, the school district’s chief financial officer.
The rest of the $114 million budget is spent on specific items, Onofrio says. For example, more than $25 million of this year’s school district budget will be a payment on that voter-approved bond debt, according to the budget.
Between 2007 and 2011, student numbers were up 15 percent and general fund expenditures were up 26 percent total, for total spending growth of 11 percent, Onofrio said.
The inflation rate between 2006 and 2010 was 10.91 percent.
The school district’s budget statistics and how they’re interpreted are at the heart of the controversy surrounding the school board’s decision to ask Eagle County voters to increase their property taxes by up to $6 million a year.
School board members say the tax increase would offset the cuts in state funding – the school district has shed $9 million and 100 jobs the last two years.
Opponents say the school district is like most other government entities. Its spending outstrips its funding, even without construction costs, and it needs to live within its means.
“All school districts and government agencies must be subject to the same economic pressures and realities as us mere taxpayers,” says Eagle County resident Buddy Shipley. “What possible justification or rationale can exist for imposing ever greater tax burdens on all property owners or other taxpayers during such a deep and prolonged economic crisis?”
Brian Childress, the school district’s human resources director, says state budget projections show another $4 million to $5 million in possible cuts next year. That could mean up to 60 teachers.
“If we put it on the ballot and the public says no, they should know that we’ll do what we need to do. … We’re prepared to live within the budget the voters say we should have,” said Dr. Sandra Smyser, superintendent of Eagle County schools, as the school board was voting to put their tax increase question to voters.
Colorado’s schools are seeing the first actual decline in funding anyone can remember, not just a slowing in the rate of increase, Onofrio says. The tax increase would put the school district back on track for where the district would have been, had the recession not hit.
“This recession is different than anything anyone has experienced before. Our funding is declining permanently,” Onofrio says.
Shipley and other opponents remain unconvinced.
“Tough times call for tough decisions,” Shipley said. “Rather than simply demand higher taxes so they may maintain their spending habits, all our governments, metro districts, special districts, and yes, even school districts, must be required to reduce spending just as all of us mere taxpayers have had to do.”
Most school districts operating revenues comes from the School Finance Act of 1994. Under this act, in 2009 the district received $7,216 per pupil. This year it’s $6,741.35 per pupil.
School Finance Act funding comes from general fund property taxes, specific ownership taxes, and state equalization. All the money is sent to the state government, which redistributes it back to local school districts, accounting for cost of living, number of students, district size, personnel vs. non-personnel costs, number of at-risk students, and other factors.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.