In 2009, Colorado Springs School District 11 closed or realigned nine schools. Last year, it slashed $11 million for instructional materials, such as books and software. This June, needing to cut another estimated $12.5 million from its overall budget of more than $200 million, the district will look to the classrooms.
"Eighty-five percent of everything in our budget is for salaries and benefits for all of our employees," says Tom Strand, D-11 board president. "And that's where you have to look, because we have cut in the other 15 percent over the past three years, and there is just not much left."
These cuts will hurt, says D-11 chief finance officer Glenn Gustafson: "Basically, we have spared the schools over the past years, but this time there's nothing left. We're cutting bone over here at the administration building."
The problem is a combination of revenue reductions, which are being felt statewide, and expenditure increases.
"For example, here in Colorado Springs, we are — and I'll use the term sarcastically — blessed with a new utility rate structure that's going to be extremely expensive for school districts," Gustafson says. "In paying for the Southern Delivery System, they are talking about a 16-percent-per-year annual increase, which will basically double water rates in six years. And we spend almost $6 million a year on utilities. That's not doubling the whole bill, it's doubling the water portion, but still."
The district is also having to shell out more to keep its promises to members of the Public Employees' Retirement Association. So much of the money is basically untouchable, leaving Gustafson to look elsewhere for savings.
"We have a few pockets of underutilized schools," where enrollment is below capacity, he says. "We aren't looking at closures, but we are looking at a few tweaks."
One possibility: switching all west-side elementary schools from K-through-5 to K-through-6. Another: modifying two neighboring elementaries, making one K-through-2 and the other 3-through-5. (Gustafson says he can't disclose which schools.)
"[If there are], say, 50 first-graders at School No. 1 and 50 first-graders at School No. 2, then you might have to have three teachers at each school, because you don't want the classes to be too big," he says. "Well, if you combine those and you now have 100 first-graders in one school, you go from six to four teachers, and you still have a good ratio."
Further, a citizen budget committee is working through the administrative budget line by line, he says, hoping to find another million in savings. Many full-time positions might become part-time, to save $2 million. Losing 85 teachers by attrition, and increasing classroom ratios by one pupil per teacher, can save $4 million. Cutting 170 teachers would save more than $8 million. Gustafson says D-11 turns over about 10 percent, or around 200 teachers, each year.
In administration, Gustafson notes, deputy superintendent Mike Poore is leaving, which could open the door for restructuring and possible furloughs. The latter could mean an unpaid fall break, including the entire Thanksgiving week, an idea that Gustafson calls "a slam dunk." It would save $2 million. And furloughs could help avoid an across-the-board pay cut, which, Gustafson says, "the board has been pretty clear that it is their last resort."
Strand says the next critical stage will come when state legislators determine how much they'll cut from K-through-12 for 2011-12. The district's budget will be finalized in May.