School district facing tough choices

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By Greg Romberg

When Jefferson County voters  rejected Amendment 3A last November, it forced school officials to work in earnest on spending plans they’d begun discussing before the election. After implementing spending increases that are already planned, it has been estimated that $35 million will need to be found over the next three years.

It is important to note that school officials are not looking for $35 million a year, but over three years, and that the figure isn’t an actual reduction in spending but a diminished increase. Increased salaries and insurance payments are among a number of planned expenses that have led the district to look for other places in the budget to find savings. The district has reached out to the community for comments and conducted many community forums throughout the county over the past few weeks. It has scheduled a meeting of its stakeholder panel to look at initial options later this month, and the school board plans to finalize its 2009-10 budget sometime in June.

School officials should be commended for planning ahead, for analyzing many different options and for reaching out aggressively to the community for input and prioritization of spending needs. But now it looks like the recession, which hadn’t been contemplated when these exercises began, may force much tougher decisions. Gov. Bill Ritter announced more than $800 million in proposed budget reductions for next year’s budget last week. They are severe, and it is estimated that Jeffco schools will receive $7 million less than expected.

Against this backdrop, everything needs to be on the table. As with any service organization, the biggest expense for the school district is salaries. While I believe most teachers are underpaid, we probably don’t have any choice but to look at scheduled pay increases.

Part of Ritter’s proposal is to freeze state employee salaries and implement furloughs. Additionally, current efforts to identify and optimize revenue opportunities should be expanded. Everything from recruiting more students to business partnerships to sponsorship opportunities should be analyzed and implemented. Further discussion about reconfiguration of the school calendar to identify ways to reduce the costs of providing ancillary services should be conducted as well.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, voters will have to be asked to consider a mill levy increase. But with people fearful for the future in a bad economy and with all levels of government facing the same difficulties, the time may not be ripe for voters to provide more resources for some time.

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Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.