Bill could cost district $300,000 for 5 years

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A few proposals winding through the Colorado Legislature plan to keep retirements benefits for public employees competitive, but the results may cause havoc on the state's already cash-strapped school districts.

Employees of Colorado's school systems and government employees pay into the Public Employee's Retirement Association or PERA, a market-driven trust fund.

For example, employees in the Moffat County School District kick in a mandatory 8 percent contribution of each paycheck toward retirement savings. The district matches that contribution and tacked on more than 2 percent last year.

But some lawmakers are pushing a bill that will require Colorado school districts to increase their PERA matching contributions by 3 percent more by the year 2010.

If passed, the bill would require school districts to increase contributions by .5 percent a year for five years, starting in 2005.

That would mean of loss of about $60,000 a year, or $300,000 in five years, on funding for Moffat County Schools, said Superintendent Pete Bergmann.

The district's employee payroll is about $12.5 million a year.

"When we're seeing signs like these, we have to look well into the future to be able to budget for them," he said. "We want to take care of the employee the best we can, but how do we balance that?"

According to PERA's Executive Director Meredith Williams, gradual increases in employer contributions are needed to keep the retirement benefits sound as market investments fluctuate.

But a series of factors at the local district such as declining enrollment and funding for other state-mandated services will have district officials carefully assessing their future funding priorities.

Colorado schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. Moffat County receives $5,511 per student, so dips in enrollment can quickly knock down district funds. Also programs such as English Language Learner classes and special education are required by the state, but districts aren't fully reimbursed when local schools implement them, Bergmann said.

This leaves choices for district officials as they head into the 2004-05 budget cycle.

Keeping teacher salaries and benefits competitive has been proven as way to retain quality teachers, said Assistant Superintendent Joel Sheridan.

But at some point the increasing costs of the district's health care insurance and PERA benefits may cut into dollars needed for school operations, he said.

Having more time to prepare for classes and an increase in salaries for adviser positions are two requests on Eric Unglaub's wish list. The Moffat County High School business and marketing teacher is new to the school this year. He's also the DECA advisor. DECA is a school-based work program.

"Having good working conditions and repairs in the classroom are important to me," he said.

Carolyn Casinger, literacy coordinator at East Elementary School is interested in the changes to PERA benefits. She's served more than 13 years with the district.

But Casinger recognized that an increase of the district's PERA contributions could potentially impact other areas of school funding.

"This will probably impact (the schools) in some ways," she said.

The district is in the beginning stages of its budget process, slated for final approval at the end of June.

Parents and community members can make recommendations through Parent Accountability Committee (PAC) meetings scheduled at least once a month at each district school. PAC and individual school budget proposals should be in to district administration by the end of March. Moffat County's Board of Education will hold two public meetings in late May and June to finalize projections.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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