Zila: District must tighten belts

By Kendra E. Fish
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — The St. Vrain Valley School District will not look to cut staff salaries to make up for the almost $3 million it may have to cut from its 2003-04 projected budget, Superintendent Randy Zila said Friday.

On Monday, Roger Driver, the district’s financial consultant, and Joanne Harbert, director of finance, will present the preliminary budget and cuts to board members at their 1:30 p.m. retreat.

“Budgetarily, we are going to have to tighten our belts further during the (2003-04 school year) to reach a balanced budget,” Zila said. “We are still trying to get some clarity on these cuts.”

In December, the district agreed to a 7.125 percent district-wide salary cut as part of a deal reached with state Treasurer Mike Coffman in order to secure a much-needed $9.8 million state loan.

Because the district is locked into this agreement, salaries will stay the same through the 2003-04 budget, Zila said.

For the most part, the district will not look to cut a majority of staff positions either, Zila said.

“But some staff cuts are not out of the realm of possibility,” he said. “It may be that a retirement comes up, and we may not look to refill that position. But I don’t anticipate any major losses.”

In light of these cuts, the district will likely ask for another state loan this fall from Coffman, Harbert said.

Currently, the district is on the books to pay back about $20 million in state loans by June 30. By June 30, 2004, the district will owe the state another $7 million.

“The district can borrow money during the fall of 2003,” Coffman said. “But whatever they borrow has to be paid back by June 2004 along with the other $7 million.”

As Driver and Harbert scrambled Friday to finish a preliminary version of the 2003-04 budget before the Monday deadline, they continually faced a major unknown: Just how much will the district receive in state funding?

On Tuesday, the Colorado House of Representatives gave preliminary approval to a bill that would provide the state’s 178 school districts some portion of $4.3 billion.

Under that version of Senate Bill 248, St. Vrain would get $118.3 million to spend during its 2003-04 school year, amounting to $5,813 per full-time student.

Using past state funding numbers, “we were anticipating $500,000 more from the state than what the Legislature is tinkering with now,” Driver said.

That possible shortage has prompted Driver and Harbert to cut $500,000 from mid-March 2003-04 budget projections.

“A lot of school districts in Colorado are getting less of an increase than they might have projected,” said Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder.

Another factor that might play a role in how much the district gets in state funding is a decrease in 2003-04 student enrollment projections.

According to Scott Toillion, the district’s planning specialist, St. Vrain is projecting an extra 542 full-time students for the 2003-04 school year, bringing total projected full-time enrollment to about 20,220. That is about 130 students shy of the 20,352 students upon which the state has based its funding projections.

“The state number is slightly high,” Toillion said.

During projections made at the same time last year, the district was expecting to enroll about 758 additional students for the 2003-04 school year, a difference of about 216 students, Toillion said.

If the district pulls in $5,813 per student per year, a decrease in projected enrollment of 200 could leave the district with $1.2 million less in revenue.

“Even if a district has a few hundred less kids than projected, when they are spread throughout a district, it might mean only one or two kids less in each school,” Tupa said. “This won’t impact the amount of teachers needed. The district will still have to pay the same electricity costs, counselors will be the same, etc.”

Another concern for the district as it drafts its 2003-04 budget is rising utility costs.

“We’re currently reviewing utility costs,” Driver said Friday.

According to Ralph Bozella, the district’s energy education manager, Xcel Energy anticipates that natural gas costs will increase by 75 percent during the 2003-04 budget and that electricity costs will rise roughly 20 percent.

Jim Faes, energy manager for Jefferson County School District, also has planned for a 75 percent increase in gas costs and an 18 percent increase in electricity costs.

“Those rates will hit us pretty good,” Faes said.

Even with these increases, the hit won’t be too drastic because of energy conservation efforts the district has been working on, Bozella said.

“We can control consumption,” he said. “But we can’t control what is charged.”

The district is increasing its utility budget by about $150,000. Last year, the district paid about $2.2 million in utility costs.

The district will also have to come up with about $400,000 to pay staff who have recently received master’s degrees or doctorates, as well as $129,000 to pay for new staff hirings at the two elementary schools slated to open in the fall of 2005.

The district is also expecting to increase vehicle fuel costs by $235,000 while receiving about $900,000 less in vehicle-registration taxes than this fiscal year.

Another added expense may come from a state law requiring each district to fund charter schools at rate of 95 percent of the standard per-pupil funding, Driver said. And over the school year, districts need to show that the other 5 percent goes to support charter schools in some way.

According to Driver, because of the multimillion-dollar deficit the district has been trying to overcome, a portion of this money has been expended in other funds.

For the 2003-04 school year, the district may now have to pay charter schools 97 to 100 percent in per-pupil funding.

“We’re trying to get a handle on this,” Driver said.

During the 2002-03 school year, different programs within the St. Vrain district “donated” a portion of their budgets to help replenish the dwindled general fund. Community schools gave the general fund about $170,000.

“This is a one-time gift,” Driver said. “Next year, we won’t receive this revenue.”

Food service gave about $140,000 and athletics about $90,000, Driver said.

With all these costs and lack of revenue in mind, the district is looking to cut $2.5 to $3 million from its 2003-04 budget.

“Because of energy costs, dwindling enrollment projections and state funding decreases, this amount in cuts is about what other districts are anticipating as well,” said Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville.

In neighboring Boulder Valley School District, chief financial officer Pam Rifkin expects $3 million in cuts.

Earlier this month, BVSD announced $2.5 million in administrative staff and program cuts.

“Now were trying to figure out where the other $500,000 will come from,” Rifkin said.

On April 11, the district invited Pat Sandersen, the St. Vrain Valley Education Association’s president, and spokesman Tom Belew to explore options for cutting the almost $3 million from the 2003-04 budget.

The district asked Sandersen and Belew to keep the discussion confidential, which they refused to do.

“Whenever staff members and the district review and study an issue in order to prepare for decisions made by the board it is considered a work product, not public record,” said district spokeswoman Nancy Herbert. “In doing so, we present those involved with a dilemma and often through problem-solving discussions get wonderful input for possible decisions.”

Sandersen said Monday will be the first time she will see the 2003-04 budget.

“I’m really trying to keep very cool, very calm about this,” she said.

“Obviously we have made it through the worst year anyone can imagine. We can get through anything they put in front of us.”

Kendra Fish can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 211, or by e-mail at kfish@times-call.com.


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