El Paso County school districts feel the pain as pandemic shrinks state funding

Published: Jul. 6, 2020 at 6:09 PM MDT
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The following is only part of the story by The Gazette:

State funding cuts to public schools amounting to $621.4 million weren’t as deep as initially thought, but still are painful, say finance officials, who worked feverishly to submit 2020-21 budgets by June 30.

“It wasn’t brutal, but our funding levels are going backwards instead of forward,” said Glenn Gustafson, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, the second-largest school district in the area.

“This is my 29th year, and this is by far the hardest budget I’ve ever done,” he said. “What we normally do in four to six months we did in four to six weeks.”

The impacts of shutting down businesses and restricting people from normal activity for months due to the coronavirus outbreak led to $3.3 billion less state revenue than expected. The situation led lawmakers to hold out on finalizing the 2020-21 budget.

Districts were warned in April that funding cuts as steep as 15% could be coming.

But lawmakers worked to spare K-12 public schools from such severe decreases by using multiple one-time federal funds to help close the gap and by eliminating corporate tax breaks.

That left districts with about 5% less, on average, in appropriations from the general fund than the fiscal year that ended Tuesday.

Pikes Peak region school districts employed such strategies as layoffs, furloughs, staff reductions through attrition, pay freezes, program cuts and dipping into reserve funds to balance their budgets for the fiscal year that began Wednesday.

School District 49 in eastern El Paso County declared a fiscal emergency on June 12, in preparing its budget.

“The fiscal emergency is actually a pretty necessary step to validate the strategies and decisions to freeze pay, not replace vacated positions and such that were necessary to react to the reduction,” said Brett Ridgway, chief business officer for D-49.

“If the state of Colorado is in fiscal emergency and K-12 education is the largest spend on the state's budget, how can any K-12 school district not be in a state of fiscal emergency?”

D-49, the area’s third-largest district, did not fill 85 vacant positions but did not resort to layoffs in reducing expenses by $4.9 million. No one’s getting a raise, either.

In cutting $15 million from its budget, Colorado Springs D-11 laid off 15 employees, including one custodian from each high school, Gustafson said.

Other layoffs were from the administration office, which took the largest hit with a $2.5 million budget cut. Twenty teaching positions also were eliminated through attrition.

Every D-11 employee will be required to take one unpaid furlough day, saving about $900,000.

The full story includes a breakdown of each district.