Talk may be cheap, but education isn’t as District 11 mulls money-saving ideas

       District 11's budget woes could lead to changes that would affect the Westside next school year.

District 11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson discusses the impact of state budget decisions on public education during his presentation at Coronado High School March 10. Projected on a screen behind him is a graph that shows how the state share (dark black line) of K-12 funding has steadily been going up over the past quarter-century while the local share (dotted line) has decreased.
Westside Pioneer photo

       And then again, they may not.
       During a March 10 evening presentation in the Coronado High School auditorium, D-11 Superintendent Nick Gledich described as “under conversation only” such publicly discussed money-saving ideas as expanding West Elementary into a grades K-6, limiting Holmes Middle School to grades 7-8 and closing West Middle School altogether - all in pursuit of improved school utilization.
       Still, the “conversation” is not dying down. Contacted for an update this week, D-11 spokesperson Elaine Naleski said that because the state (also-money-starved) has not clarified how much it will make available for public schools in its June 2011-to-July 2012 fiscal year, the district is “probably no closer to making a final decision than we were a few weeks ago.”
       What state legislators eventually decide is key because over the past 25 years the state's share of school financing has been going up. Where districts themselves used to pay about 60 percent of their costs (and the state 40 percent), now it's almost reversed, explained D-11 Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson, who gave the main presentation at the Coronado meeting.
       Adding to the district's concerns, the state is looking at a $1 billion overall deficit in a budget that normally dedicates nearly half its funds for K-12 spending. The reason for the state's problem is chiefly that in the current economy corporate tax revenues “are way, way down,” Gustafson said.
       While cautioning people that the district has weathered hard times in the past and will surely do so again, the former D-11 student and long-time CFO used the words “kind of scary” to describe the current money situation. The district expects it will have to cut $12.5 million for 2011-12, he said.
       Adding to the problem is District 11 seeing its own mandated costs go up (such as for water, up 16 percent; and transportation, higher gas costs), reduced federal aid (no more “stimulus” funds after this fiscal year) and a lower ratio for state per-pupil funding.
       An unknown is what kinds of raises, if any, the the Colorado Springs Education Association, which represents D-11 teachers, will negotiate with the Board of Education. In the current fiscal year, salaries were frozen.
       The 2011-2012 year will be the fourth straight of district budget cuts (including $11 million in the current fiscal year). Until now, Gustafson said the district has tried to keep the cuts from directly affecting the classroom, but now that “excess dough,” as he put it, is gone.
       A potentially controversial money-saving idea being talked about for next year is slightly increasing class sizes. A silver lining is that plan is, because of dropping enrollment, district class sizes now are actually less than they were 10 years ago, Gustafson noted.
       Other school utilization enhancements could include turning several elementaries into K-6 (instead of K-5) schools and setting up others as K-2 only or 3-5 only.
       It's possible too that occasional “furlough days” could be planned. These would be normal days when schools simply would not open. This is based on the premise that it costs the district $1 million every day the schools are open, Gustafson said. One way to use the furlough option would be to expand the Thanksgiving holiday from three days into a one-week “fall break” (the way some districts do) - as it stands now, the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week are rife with absenteeism, he said.
       While the district continues to “converse” about ideas, no absolute date has been set to make a budget decision. Gledich said he wanted “to see what happens over the next several weeks.” He added that the district is “working on a survey” to put before the public at some point this spring “to get input and ideas.”
       Coronado's was the first of six similar financial presentations that Gustafson was to give at different district high schools in March. Gledich and Gustafson were joined at the Coronado session by assistant superintendents Mike Poore and Mary Thurman.

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