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Vail Daily column: Budget season is upon us

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

April is a busy and contentious time of year for public schools across Colorado. Closing in on the finish of one school year and busily planning for the next, our school district, like others across the state, is working to determine the budget for the 2015-16 school year, which will take effect July 1.

When I talk about Eagle County Schools, people are often surprised by the complexity of our district. With 20 school campuses and other buildings that amount to 1.2 million square feet of building space and over 1,000 employees — our annual district budget (inclusive of bond repayments for facilities) is pushing nearly $100 million annually.

What makes school budgeting complex work is that there are a number of key variables that have to be taken into account, both on the revenue and on the expenditure sides of the ledger. At this point in the budget process, we have a high degree of certainty around some of these numbers. These include expenditures like benefit cost increases, food costs for school lunches and breakfasts, and costs for things like staff training and recruiting.

The difficult part, at this point in the year, is trying to make estimates and build a preliminary budget based on what we don’t know. The primary determiner of school funding is the Colorado State Legislature.

From the governor’s initial budget to reports and recommendations from the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee staff to drafts of finance bills as they work their way through the legislative process, we closely track each of these for early indicators of what will happen with school finance in the state. As conditions change and more information becomes clear, we update our preliminary budget to reflect the best estimates at the time.

Further complicating the state school finance this year is the specter of TABOR refunds. The TABOR amendment requires state government to issue refund checks to taxpayers when state revenues grow faster than a calculation outlined in the amendment. As Colorado’s economy heats up, it is likely that limit will be exceeded for this current fiscal year and almost certainly for the next.

This means that instead of reinvesting the hundreds of millions that were cut out of Colorado’s schools during the recession (allowing us to pay our teachers more, address facilities and technology needs, and lower class sizes), the Legislature must hold back these funds to pay for TABOR refunds.

Coloradans can expect a refund from anywhere between $26 to $76 per taxpayer (averaging about $40), using estimates from the Governor’s Office. Well, at least we can all buy a delivery pizza … and maybe make another few trips to Starbucks.

The vast majority of any school budget is made up of expenses related to personnel. How many teachers we have and how much we pay them accounts for the lion’s share of the budget. This is as it should be — education is a people-driven business. We need talented, professional and caring educators to work with our students.

During the course of the recession, Eagle County Schools cut about 70 positions across the district. So far, we’ve been able to put back around seven. This year, we are determined to add back a few more, to maintain our class sizes and be able to ensure adequate planning time for our teachers. Of course, we’d like to do even more, but given the depth of the recession cuts and the TABOR limitations on revenue, the reality is that it may take us a decade to get back to pre-recession levels.

The decision to add staff is not without its trade-offs. If we only added staff, then our teachers would lose ground to inflation, benefit costs would eat more and more of their paychecks and our building and operational needs would begin to pile up. So, just like with a family budget, we have to prioritize and do what we can in areas where we believe we can do the most good.

The good news is that we are dealing with positive numbers rather than budget cuts and we are thankful for that. The other good news is that our enrollment continues to grow due to families moving into our valley or selecting to attend Eagle County Schools through school choice options.

The unfortunate reality is that what’s coming from the state will be spread very thinly across a variety of needs. By mid-May, our budget situation, including revenues and expenses, will be defined. The Board of Education finalizes the budget in June. Until then, we hold our breath and pay close attention to news coming out of the golden dome.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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