School administrators answer budget questions

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The following questions were compiled by the Moffat County School District Accountability Committee, a group of parents representing each of the district’s schools, based on feedback and questions heard from a variety of parents and community members. The answers have been prepared for distribution to faculty, staff, parents and the wider Moffat County school community. The questions have been answered by: Mark Rydberg, MCSD finance director; Christine Villard, assistant superintendent; and Joe Petrone, superintendent.

Can you give us a breakdown of what the district’s budget looks like and from where the district gets its revenue?

Seventy-five percent of the revenue comes from the Colorado Department of Education’s Total Program, which is the number of students multiplied by a district specific per pupil funding. Twelve percent comes from other local taxes, which are a product of the 1997 mill levy voter approved override. Four percent comes from miscellaneous sources, including the county and federal mineral money. Another three percent comes from state grants, and six percent comes from federal grant sources, including No Child Left Behind, special education and two-year-only stimulus money.

What do the proposed cuts for licensed staff and classified staff look like? How will the cuts affect staff at all levels?

More clarity now exists with licensed and classified staff salaries. During recent negotiations with the Moffat County Education Association, it was decided to recommend lanes (increase education and credentials) and steps (years of service). These are features associated with the licensed staff. Also, there is a recommendation for a reduction of one full-time administrative position. And, at this time, all administrators in the district have elected not to receive step advances as negotiated and recommended for other licensed staff.

For classified staff a recommendation is forthcoming, which will provide advancement based on a similar schedule. Also, for classified employees, who have worked more than 10 years, a longevity stipend will be recommended for retention. There will be recommendations for groups and individual classified staff pay reductions; these reductions are a result of program reviews, as called for in the guiding principles. All district programs were reviewed in the context of redesign, reduction, supplementation or elimination using core beliefs. These reductions are mostly in the form of reduced hours and days. Also, there is realignment of vacation days, which is a cost savings. Finally, the district’s commitment to attrition remains firm and, at this time, it appears that needed reductions in positions will be realized through normally occurring resignations.

The School Board has decided to contract with a different insurance company for its employees. Please explain why and what the possible benefits are to the district and its staff.

The Insurance Committee recommended a switch of insurance providers as a strategic move to help the district control the district’s third highest expense. The goal is to control the type of coverage offered and the premiums paid by both the district and its employees.

The Public Employees’ Retirement Association has been in the news often lately. Can you explain what’s happening with PERA and how that affects our district and its employees?

PERA is a defined benefit retirement plan for all employees of the district. District employees do not pay into Social Security, instead they pay into PERA. PERA’s ability to pay its obligations came under scrutiny/hardship after the financial collapse of 2008. Other contributing factors were a result of some prior benefits offered when the PERA fund was fully supported. PERA has implemented a new plan design that affects current “retires,” soon to be retirees, employees far from retirement, and even for future employees. For complete details, please visit http://www.copera.org/pera/about/legislation/SB10-001.stm The impact to the district is increased contributions to PERA for every dollar paid in wage to the employees. In 2006, the district paid 10.15 percent to PERA for every dollar earned. Currently, the district pays 14 percent of wages to PERA. By 2017, the district will be paying 20 percent of all wages earned to PERA to fund the retirement of district employees.

Can you describe what the intervention program looks like and how it works? What will the proposed intervention program restructure look like?

MCSD’s intervention program consists of supplemental support and services for students who are at risk of school failure and are not making adequate academic progress. Our interventions programs consist of literacy, math, special education, English language learners and behavioral support. Students are identified through assessments and referrals that are evaluated by Student Intervention Teams in each building. Students receive small group and individual instruction based on their identified needs using research-based instructional programs and strategies. Licensed and non-licensed staff members provide these services. All programs are supervised by licensed professionals, all with advanced or specialist degrees.

The proposed intervention restructure currently consists of reducing the non-licensed staff by six positions. These positions are equally distributed across the buildings, meaning that each building will have one less intervention non-licensed staff. This will impact the students in those groups, as sizes will be larger, and schools will have fewer support services to provide to students.

Please explain the situation with the possibility of charging parents tuition for all­day kindergarten.

Very early in the budget reduction planning process it became clear to the Board of Education that charging tuition for all-day kindergarten was not a viable consideration for the 2010-11 school year. Therefore, the BoE clearly directed such tuition charges should no longer be an option to assist with the impending budget reduction.

What is happening with the gifted and talented program at the high school?

The Moffat County School District Gifted/Talented program is consistent with research-based practices in that students are served within the regular education setting with their classroom teachers and peers. Students who are identified as gifted have an Advanced Learning Plan that is developed with a team of teachers, the student and the student’s parents. THE ALP is utilized to determine the student’s strengths and areas of academic support and advancement that will enrich their educational program. ALPs are individualized and reviewed annually.

G/T funding is used to pay for stipends to staff to compensate them for the additional time required to identify G/T students, develop ALPs, attend staff development programs, G/T collaboration meetings as well as to collaborate and monitor student progress with the student’s teachers.

The majority of our G/T funding goes toward staff development. In the past two years, MCSD has spent G/T funds training teachers on differentiated learning, which is meeting all students’ needs through differentiated instructional practices in the classroom, and using technology as an integrated instructional practice in the classroom. Both staff development activities are recommended teacher training programs for addressing the needs of gifted students.

A portion of our funds go towards sending students to learning opportunities that would advance their knowledge or interest in an area. These include activities such as Science Explorers and field trips. A primary focus of our program is to begin developing more student learning activities that our G/T and high-achieving students can access.

A small portion of our G/T funds is used for assessment and identification of G/T students. Similarly, we have allocated funds to purchase materials and supplies for targeted projects for use with G/T and high-achieving students.

What is the district’s plan for busing students to school? How will that affect students who live in and out of city limits?

The plan for busing students to and from school has not changed. There were early deliberations about how we might reduce costs in this area but there has been no firm recommendations regarding this early proposal. It appears, as of this time, that transportation will remain as currently experienced by in-town and out-of-town students.

At the March 25 meeting, the Moffat County School Board decided to keep the Moffat County High School pool open and reassess its condition in another year. Can you explain the creation of the pool sustainability committee and what its role will be?

The budget development guiding principle noted above, “Achieve a balanced budget (do not ‘tap’ our reserve fund)” was tested, as it will be recommended that the BoE use a proportionately small amount of our fund reserve to manage the cost ($75,000) of the swimming pool facility for the 2010-11 school year. This decision was purposely made to avoid the elimination of the swimming component of our physical education curriculum. Other vital and long-standing programs, specifically the boys and girls swimming athletics and a decades-long community use of the pool would have been eliminated; they are now retained for the 2010-11 school year.

The Board of Education directed the administration to organize a Swimming Program Sustainability Task Force to study the feasibility of managing associated pool facility costs through privatization in order to preserve the curriculum and associated athletics and community program. Of course, in the context of this study we will design workable alternatives, which might include pool closure. In this scenario, we will offer a plan that sustains the curriculum component of our program. But, the BoE was clear that the continuation of our athletics and community use programs could be eliminated if we do not find a self-sustaining, alternative source of funding for pool operations. The BoE asked that this task force bring a recommendation to them in their regularly scheduled meeting in March 2011.

What are the proposed cuts to extracurricular activities and sports? What is the role of the activities committee?

At the April 2010 Board of Education meeting, a range of options was presented to mostly increase fees rather than decrease athletics or activities programs. Our athletics program administrators conducted a thorough review of regional costs associated with similar activities and athletics programs. We learned our charges are among the lowest. The BoE agreed to consider the recommended increases as a prudent and reasonable means to maintain current programs and reduce the budget. The recommendations regarding these revenue enhancements came from the Activities Committee, which was engaged to consider a range of carefully constructed options. The Activities Council is comprised of individuals with different perspectives who meet and discuss items such as budget, adding/dropping a sport, fee increases, etc.

Why can’t or won’t the district use its reserve fund to cover the difference in state funding?

The district and board believe that using the fund balance to cover the difference in funding is an unsound financial strategy. Using the fund balance is the same as deficit spending, the district and board recognizes that deficit spending is a practice that may solve a short-term problem, while creating a larger long-term problem.

Understanding how Colorado Public School Finance works, deficit spending on recurring costs will only lead to larger cuts in the future. MCSD is committed to presenting a balanced budget every year, using the fund balance on only non-recurring costs which do not require continued funding over the years.

Why doesn’t the district apply for grants for additional funding?

District officials apply for numerous grants each year. Those funds are federal- and state-allocated funds for support services such as intervention programs, vocational programs and technology. The grant-writing and application process can be complicated. The Colorado Department of Education and other entities also offer a limited number of competitive grants based on district demographics or other criteria. Many of these grants MCSD does not qualify for, as they are based on having a high poverty rate. MCSD has a relatively low poverty rate and does not qualify for many of these grants. Other grants often require the district to start a new program and match the amount the grant can fund; then, typically the grant funding is reduced over a period of time, expecting the district to pick up the costs of the program on its own. Even a healthy budget is unable to commit large funds towards starting a new program. A further complication is that often grant funds are used to hire staff, when the funding runs out, staff have to be let go and programs cut, making adding a new program difficult to sustain and creating a burden on schools. When a district does decide to write a grant, a great deal of evaluation is done by a team to determine the impact of writing the grant and then the long-term sustainability of keeping the program after funding runs out.

How will the School Board reach its budget decisions? Are the parent and community voices being heard?

The Board of Education has by and large adhered to the guiding principles, which were developed to navigate through this unprecedented decrease in state of Colorado revenues. The “do not ‘tap’ our reserve fund” principle was tested, as the BoE will be asked to use a proportionately small amount of our fund reserve to cover the cost ($75,000) of the swimming pool facility for the 2010-11 school year. This decision allows continuation of the swimming component of our physical education program, boys and girls swimming athletics and continuing community use. The BoE directed the administration to organize a Swimming Program Sustainability Task Force to study the feasibility of managing associated pool facility costs through privatization. The BoE asked that this task force bring a recommendation to them in their regularly scheduled meeting in March 2011.

There have been opportunities for the community to engage in the budget development process. An open invitation has been extended to community groups and many have chosen to hear directly from school officials about our budget reduction strategy. Our parent body has been offered frequent updates through monthly newsletters, special mailings and campus Parent Advisory Council meetings. The latter group has representation on a district-wide council or School District Accountability Committee. SDAC has been instrumental in providing direct feedback from campus parents regarding budget reduction templates, which was made available early in the budget reduction process.

What’s the district’s timeline for making budget decisions? When will the district hear about state funding?

The final draft budget will be presented on May 27. The district administration distributed a final draft template to faculty on May 10. It is expected that most, if not all, of our revenue projections will be known and the budget presented at this meeting will be a solid fiscal recommendation for the 2010-11 school year. The final budget will be prepared for Board of Education and, at the June 24 meeting it will be submitted for summary approval. The state of Colorado funding reduction is now known to be 6.35 percent.

What does the district predict for the following years’ budgets?

There are those economic forecasters who predict similar reductions next year and others who have brighter prognostications. We would like to believe the latter optimistic view. There is no certainty regarding the future but our hopes are that the worst is behind us. We remain cautiously optimistic but, considering this year, we will prudently plan for additional reductions, the degree to which remains to be seen.

How can parents help? Are there opportunities for parents and community members to help in classrooms, raise money or step up in other ways?

• Volunteer in your child’s classroom as much as you can. When teachers can count on parents to come in regularly, we are able to plan activities and interventions that parents can facilitate.

• Donate supplies/resources to your school or child’s classroom.

• Help build book libraries for classrooms and libraries through funding and donations.

• Become active in fundraising for your school, as these funds have helped tremendously in purchasing much-needed supplies, field trips and technology. Fundraising makes a huge difference in schools being able to provide educational and instructional services.

• Encourage others in your family, community and at work to support education. Too often the community hears complaints. We believe the predominant message should reflect the positive aspects about education in Moffat County Schools.

Who at the school district can I contact if I have more questions?

Those directly engaged in the budget planning process include all administrators, but the ones to whom you should address your initial questions should be: Mark Rydberg, MCSD finance director, (mark.rydberg@moffatsd.org) and Joe Petrone, superintendent (joe.petrone@moffatsd.org). Both can also be reached at 824-3268.

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