Moffat County School District bracing for proposed budget cuts

Pull quote:

“It’s a significant amount of money, and it’s going to cause some pain.”

—Mark Rydberg, Moffat County School District finance director, on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget

Mark Rydberg said Colorado’s public education system is in trouble.

“It’s already one of the poorest funded programs (in the country),” he said. “If it moves to the poorest, it won’t be surprising.”

Rydberg, the Moffat County School District finance director, was reacting to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed state budget, which was unveiled Tuesday in Denver. The proposal calls for steep cuts in funding for K-12 and higher education in Colorado.

If approved, the budget would go into effect July 1.

Depending on the source, Rydberg said Colorado’s funding for public education is already in the “high forties,” or near the bottom of the 50 states.

If Hickenlooper’s proposed budget goes through, Colorado may fall to the bottom of the national list. That bodes poorly for the local school district.

“Without a doubt, Moffat County School District is at the bottom of the calculated per-pupil funding in Colorado,” Rydberg said.

Of 178 school districts in Colorado, Moffat County is continually ranked between 175th and 178th year after year, he said.

Rydberg said district officials braced for budget cuts this year, but Hickenlooper’s proposal goes beyond expectations.

“The administration has been working on an assumption that the reduction would be 10 percent,” he said.

However, Hickenlooper’s cuts would amount to 14 percent, or $650,000 less than anticipated.

Rydberg said the proposal means the district would receive $900 less per student.

“We will be looking at significant expense reductions,” he said.

Nonetheless, Rydberg said the cuts are understandable, given the current economic conditions.

“It comes down to the fact that they just don’t have the money,” he said. “The state of Colorado is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget, and they just don’t have the revenue to fund programs to levels that I’m sure they want to.

“And, the result is cuts.”

Cuts from the state will translate to cuts at the district level, he said.

The school board will discuss potential cuts at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 28.

“There will definitely be serious moans and groans about certain things,” Rydberg said. “It’s a significant amount of money, and it’s going to cause some pain.

“There’s going to be some decisions made that will be inherently unpopular to somebody.”

Hickenlooper’s proposed budget also means reductions to higher education.

Russell George, Colorado Northwestern Community College president, said it’s too soon to know exactly how the funding cuts will affect his college.

However, students may eventually feel some of the brunt.

George said the school is funded through a combination of sources — taxes from the residents of Moffat County and Rio Blanco, federal programs, state money, scholarships and tuition.

“The state subsidy is going down,” he said. “What’s left? Tuition. Our mission is to keep tuition low. Can we do both? Of course not.”

George said the current economic climate is particularly unkind to community colleges.

As jobs become scarce, more people turn to community colleges for continuing education. When enrollment goes up and state subsidies go down, schools feel the pinch.

“So, if you’re bringing in more students, and not being able to match the rest of the costs with the general fund money, you’re in a squeeze,” he said.

Although Hickenlooper’s budget proposal may go through several revisions before it’s passed in late April or early May, George said he’s keeping an eye on the horizon.

“Well, I see the storm clouds,” he said. “But, I just don’t know how much snow and rain is behind them.”

Ben McCanna can be reached at 875-1793 or bmccanna@craigdailypress.com.

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