Moffat County School District’s Board of Education declares fiscal emergency
Things are so bad that the Moffat County School Board declared a fiscal emergency on Monday. But relief from the federal government sparks more frustration than solutions.
Superintendent Dave Ulrich knows the declaration may spook anyone working for the district, including teachers, but he already sent out a reassuring e-mail on Saturday saying the district won’t cut any jobs or even require any furlough days, thanks to the board’s commitment to take $450,000 out of the reserve fund. He reiterated that Monday, stating during the 7 a.m. meeting that he was speaking to any teachers listening (if they were awake) as well as board members.
The fiscal emergency declaration allows the board to sell property in order to cover deficits, apply for loans to alleviate cash flow and renegotiate or cancel contracts with vendors if the district can’t make a payment to them. Ulrich said he doesn’t anticipate the district will have to do any of those things, but he wanted to give the board as much fiscal flexibility as possible.
“I’m not recommending this to the board lightly,” Ulrich said. “But you can’t argue that this isn’t a fiscal emergency. If there was ever a time, now is the time.”
That flexibility doesn’t seem to exist in the COVID-19 relief money given to the district. The state gave the district $1.2 million out of more than $500 million of federal funds redirected by Gov. Polis to school districts across Colorado. The state received more than $1.6 billion in federal COVID relief overall.
But the money has to be explicitly used for COVID relief. That stipulation leaves the district with a significant amount of money – it would offset a big chunk of the district’s deficit for the upcoming year – but without many ideas on how to spend it.
There’s no doubt the district needs the money. The state plans to spend 5 percent less per pupil and 15 percent less overall on K-12 education. The board will discuss the district’s shortfall later this week and didn’t discuss specific numbers or ways to offset the deficit Monday.
Here’s a taste of the frustration district officials feel now: All the money spent on those iPads that helped students get through the remote learning installed after the coronavirus hit can’t be recovered by that $1.2 million. Why? The district purchased them before the virus hit, so officials can’t make a case that they needed them specifically because of the virus. The money also needs to be spent by Dec. 30.
State officials told the district to be creative, and so they’re trying. Could the money, for instance, be used to pay janitors, since their jobs could be cut in a budget crises but are more important than ever in a virus crises? The answer is, well, maybe.
“If they would just provide a little more guidance it would be a tremendous help,” said John Wall, district finance director. “This is the true definition of one-time money. You are best to spend all of it, and we will spend all of it, but how much can it offset our deficit?”
Polis wants to give districts as much flexibility as possible, but the federal funds are specifically for COVID relief, leaving his hands tied as well, and Ulrich wants to be as careful as possible, given that the district won’t be in a position to write any checks back to the federal government if an auditor deems any of the money was misused.
Some help could come, Ulrich said, in the Fair Tax Colorado citizen’s ballot initiative, which would raise taxes for the wealthiest state residents to give education an addition $1.9 billion in revenue. The initiative would actually lower income tax for 95 percent of all residents.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “It has the opportunity to pass. It’s a wild card sitting out there.”
Ulrich said he was concerned about the future as well because during the Great Recession in 2008-10, budgets got worse, not better, in the couple of years after the initial crash.
“We’re hopeful our economy will recover faster,” he said, “but we don’t know if it will.”
When the board members wound down the meeting with a discussion about lobbying legislators for budget relief, Board Member Cindy Looper ended it with a comment.
“You can’t advocate for more money,” Looper said, “when there’s no money.”
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Moffat County School District’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that positivity rates have remained low for the second week in a row.