Moffat County stakeholders eye tough school budget decisions
Residents note stringent state funding rules
February 25, 2016
Craig — Confronting some of the harsh realities of public school funding in Colorado, about 70 people gathered Wednesday at Colorado Northwestern Community College to discuss the coming budget for the Moffat County School District.
The gathering was the second in a series of stakeholder meetings designed by district officials to solicit a strong dose of community input on the coming budget.
"As a district we've really been in a budget crisis for well over 10 years," said Tinneal Gerber, the district's executive director of finance and operations. "We've got to put an end to that."
The meeting blended presentations on finance with presentations on curriculum, with Curriculum Director Amy Ward discussing the term "curriculum" and introducing teachers and other staff members, who explained their work and the ways in which that work differs from years ago.
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Gerber noted a projected budget gap of $1,762,000, along with what she called "a total budget challenge" of $2,360,000. The larger number, she explained, includes a continuation of iPad use at a cost of $98,000 per year, along with $500,000 for additional teaching and learning materials.
The total general fund expenditures for the current school year add up to $20,261,656.
Gerber also presented questions about how to close the gap.
"Do we need to maybe increase our class sizes across our district?" Gerber asked. She briefly touched on other options, as well, and stressed the importance of getting input from the community about whether there are areas that are valued more highly than other areas.
Gerber presented a number of statistics she said are available at the Colorado Department of Education's website, including Moffat County teachers' salaries compared to other districts. She pointed out that, for the 2014-15 school year, Moffat County teachers' salaries averaged $45,943, lower than the state average of $48,276. Still, that salary landed Moffat County teachers at 30th of the 195 districts, a sign, Gerber later explained, of an uneven distribution of salaries throughout the state.
CNCC President Russell George, who's facilitating the meetings for the school district, concluded the statistics Gerber unveiled, the district as being in step with other districts with regard to its spending.
"The sense I'm getting … is that there's nothing off the charts," he said. "We're not at the top, and we're not at the bottom."
After the meeting, Gerber said the budget challenges faced by the district are aligned with those encountered by other Colorado school districts.
"I would not say that Moffat County is struggling any more or any less than other districts right now," she said. "It is a statewide issue."
Instruction changes form
Presentations also focused on ways teaching has changed and on ways instructional coaches and other supporting staff members have helped teachers in the classroom.
Rhonda Counts, a fifth-grade teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School, discussed the role of those coaches, noting their help was more effective than attending a session in Denver, coming back and trying to implement it.
"It's been wonderful," Counts said, "having somebody check in and say, 'How are we doing on this? Did the plan we made work?'"
Technology Director Vicki Haddan discussed iPad use, noting, among other things, that iPads create chances for a student to experience personalized learning. She used the example of students snapping a photo of a tree's roots with her iPad and using an app to explore the science of what she's photographed.
"She can integrate it into a diagram and label the parts," Haddan said. "She's making it personal, because she's taken her own picture. She's making that learning memorable to her.
This school year, Moffat County fifth-graders, eighth-graders and students enrolled in advanced placement classes have been given iPads to use during the school year.
Toward the end of the meeting, people in attendance asked questions that may shape some of the future gatherings.
Matt Winey pointed out what he called the dangers of computerized technology — dangers he said include security, students' reliance on spell check and the social behaviors of students locked into their technological devices.
"If you walk around in our community, it's not a big sell out there yet," he added, referring to the iPads in schools.
Superintendent Brent Curtice said all of those questions could become topics for a future meeting.
Tough spending choices
Chris Jones, a board member of Friends of Moffat County Education, said he'd like to see concrete scenarios of various budget options presented soon.
"What are the different scenarios that (we) as a community are facing?" he asked.
"Everything is on the plate," Curtice said, and George noted that the March 23 meeting would most likely be the one that offered the sorts of budget scenarios Jones requested.
Throughout the meeting, some community members noted the difficulty of funding education in Colorado, citing the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, that places strict limits on revenue growth without voter approval.
"When are we going to say, 'Enough is enough'?" asked Andrea Camp, a former Moffat County School Board member. "We're not the only school district in this boat."
Pointing specifically to TABOR, Camp mentioned state restrictions on spending she said were hurting schools.
"We're refunding money to taxpayers when we don't have money to fund our schools," Camp said. "I don't need a check for $20. What good is that going to do me as an individual? But for a collective group, for all of Colorado, (those funds) could do a lot of great things in our schools."
George, a former speaker of the house, noted an opportunity for people to apply pressure to the state Legislature regarding education funding.
"We don't have to let the legislature off the hook on this one," George said. "If the legislature really wanted to solve this, they would pass a joint resolution, House and Senate, to put on the ballot the measures that would correct the mistakes of the past, in the Constitution, preventing us from having quality education processes. Then, they could go back home … and they could begin to lead this battle."
The next stakeholder meeting is scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Clarion Inn & Suites.
A proposed budget is slated to be presented to the school board May 19, followed by a public hearing June 2.