Eagle County Schools look for $5.5M in budget cuts | SummitDaily.com

Eagle County Schools look for $5.5M in budget cuts

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily

EAGLE, Colorado – A $5.5 million budget cut is gonna hurt, and almost everything is on the school district’s chopping block, the school board told a packed house Wednesday.

The Eagle County School District is anticipating another reduction in state funding, based on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state budget proposal for 2012. Add in increased expenses and it comes to a $5.5 million gut punch to the local school district’s budget.

To make those cuts, proposals include cutting up to 100 jobs, closing and consolidating schools and reducing the number of days students are in school.

“There’s not going to be a decision we make that won’t be so hard that we don’t cry over it,” said Jeanne McQueeney, school board president.

Reduction policy approved

The school board set the stage for those job cuts by unanimously adopting a “Reduction In Force” policy during Wednesday’s long and emotionally charged meeting. Beginning in February, staff cuts will be done based on performance evaluations and not seniority, as it’s been done in the past. The policy reflects the state’s new teacher effectiveness law, Senate Bill 191, said Dr. Brian Childress, the school district’s human resources director.

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Right now, the district employs 511 teachers.

“Salary and benefits make up about 80 percent of our budget. Not many businesses run that way,” Childress said.

Childress pointed out that all this would go away if everyone in the school district took a 17.5 percent pay cut.

The district always budgets on an average cost-per-teacher basis: $50,000 salary and $14,000 for benefits – $64,000 total, Childress said.

“We do that because we want the best people in front of kids, not the cheapest people,” Childress said.

Right now, elementary schools carry 13.62 students per teacher. In secondary schools, it’s 13.65 students per teacher.

Increase that by three students per teacher and the district can cut 33.81 full-time spots at the elementary level, 31.26 in the middle schools and 20 in the high schools, Childress said.

“We hope this is a worst-case scenario,” Childress said.

The district has shed 100 jobs over the last two years. Last year, those cuts through attrition, Childress said. Most years they lose between 60 and 70 people, he said.

In January they anticipate asking the school board to declare a fiscal emergency, which will enable them to begin that reduction in force, Childress said.

Makes the cuts now

Economic forecasters say Colorado is scraping along the recession’s bottom, and might not bounce back until 2015.

“Things are improving, but not quickly enough to help finance education,” said Phil Onofrio, the school district’s chief financial officer. “We’re not expecting anything to get better. We need to cut to maintain where we are.”

Onofrio counseled the school board to make the job cuts now, instead of a few each year.

“My suggestion is to cut deeply now, and you won’t have to have to be sitting here doing this year after year after year,” Onofrio said.

The cuts will hit everyone, Onofrio said. If they cut transportation, it might make more money available for teachers, but not on the bottom line, he said.

“Nothing we’re going to do here will change the number of cuts we’ll have to make. It just changes who gets laid off,” Onofrio said.

Closing and consolidating

Onofrio said it’s a long-term efficiency question.

Closing Red Sandstone Elementary School in Vail would save $401,000 a year, said Mike Gass with the school district.

“That’s $4 million over 10 years,” Onofrio said.

Elementary schools at the east end of the valley could hold up to 2,405 more students, Onofrio said.

“If we decide we don’t want to close schools, it’s not because we don’t have the capacity to do it,” Onofrio told the school board.

The meeting was packed with people passionately arguing to the school board on behalf of their schools and programs.

“People love their neighborhood schools. Is the savings worth it to put them through this?” Onofrio asked the school board.

The price to be paid

No one on the school board favored closing schools, but all understand their dilemma.

“I am against closing any school because it’s damaging to the communities they’re in. The damage done to the community is not worth the savings. We’re not a business, we’re a school district,” said Kate Cocchiarella.

They can keep everything as it is, or they can keep more people employed, but they cannot do both, said Tessa Kirchner, school board member.

“Another $500,000 is 10 teachers. We’re talking about highly qualified effective teachers who are doing a great job. We can keep all these small schools, but there is a price to be paid.”

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