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Publish Date: 3/27/2005

SVVSD budgets frugally


LONGMONT — The St. Vrain Valley School District’s budget for 2005-2006 is a balancing act.

With the help of a Budget Advisory Committee and district planners, chief financial officer Mark Pillmore is putting together a preliminary budget that is fiscally conservative, but also takes into account district growth.

Scott Toillion, the district’s planning director, told the committee Thursday evening he estimates the district will have the equivalent of 21,270 full-time students in 2005.

The state announced last week that it would fund the St. Vrain district based on an equivalent of 21,324 full-time students.

Though that number is higher than Pillmore’s estimate, he said the district is being conservative in its per-student budgeting to avoid owing the state any money.

“When we get our October (student) count, if (the state) overpaid us, we have to pay it back,” Pillmore said. “If they underpaid us, we get more.”

Based on the current School Finance Act, which is still being debated in the Legislature, St. Vrain would receive about $6,035 per student next year, a $102 increase over this year.

One of the big unknowns in planning next year’s budget is how two new charter schools, which are set to open this fall, and a new public elementary school being built in the Dacono area by neighboring Fort Lupton School District, will affect the district’s finances.

All three schools will pull students from St. Vrain, Pillmore said, but he doesn’t know how many.

Toillion estimated Thursday the district would lose about 221 students to the two charter schools.

Carbon Valley Charter Academy, which will open in Frederick, is planning to enroll 235 students.

“That would lead me to be a lot more conservative with our numbers,” said school board member Robert Auman, who also sits on the Budget Advisory Committee.

Flagstaff Academy charter school, which will open in south Longmont, estimates it will have about 200 students.

Any increase in charter school enrollment would affect St. Vrain’s general fund budget because it takes students — and their state funding — away from the district.

Enrollment numbers are not yet final, Pillmore said, and will be revised as more information becomes available.

Another financial unknown is faculty and staff salaries and benefits. Contract negotiations between the district and the St. Vrain Valley Education Association, which represents district teachers, will begin in earnest in the next two weeks.

For his preliminary budget, Pillmore allocated a 3 percent pay increase, one step raise based on experience and a 20 percent increase in health insurance costs, but he stressed that those numbers could change, based on the negotiations.

St. Vrain plans to fully fund instructional materials and supplies in 2005-06, at a cost of $167 per student. The district also would like to budget $1 million in general fund reserves to continue to hack away at its $4.3 million deficit.

And even though the district’s situation has improved since the financial crisis of November 2002, the school board voted a couple of weeks ago to increase class sizes by up to 1.5 students and cut up to 58 teacher and paraprofessional positions, which would save the district $3.6 million.

Schools already are working out how to deal with those cuts, Pillmore said, but if the district makes up some money in other budgeted areas, it is possible a few of those cut positions will be added back in later.

St. Vrain has spent several years trying to reduce its class sizes, particularly at schools that receive federal Title 1 funding. Most of those have student/teacher ratios of 18 to 1. If the increase in students per classroom goes through, Title 1 class ratios would jump to 19 or 20 to 1.

Critics of the school district call the announcement of possible layoffs a scare tactic to get residents to vote for a mill-levy override in November.

The district and Board of Education have said numerous times in the past year they would have to either cut positions or programs if they want to keep whittling away at the general fund deficit.

Around 83 percent of the district’s $116.5 million in expenditures for the 2003-04 school year went to paying for salaries and benefits.

Pillmore has said he would like the district to have about $7 million in reserves in St. Vrain’s general fund.

The $108 million mill-levy override proposal that failed in November 2004 would have added $7 million over seven years to the district’s general fund reserves, eliminating the current deficit and providing a cushion of funds that could be used for the state-mandated 2 percent reserve.

Currently, St. Vrain accounts for its reserve in other funds. The district would like to free those funds up for other uses.

Another factor in budgeting is that district administrators do not know how many teachers are retiring at the end of this year.

Teachers who have been with the district for 20 or 30 years make more money than younger teachers, Pillmore said, so retirements would result in savings.

Many people in the community have questioned why the district was overly conservative with its enrollment numbers for this year, giving the district an extra $2.4 million to allocate by the end of the school year, after the state paid for the uncounted students.

Pillmore said last year that St. Vrain underestimated its enrollment figures this year because its enrollment figures in 2003-04 came in much lower than what was budgeted.

District staff will present a revised budget to the public and the school board in May, Pillmore said, and the Board of Education has until June 30 to adopt it.

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at pavengladych@times-call.com.

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