Uncertainty is the name of the game: County school districts work to finalize budgets

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Routt County school districts work to finalize their budgets for the 2020-21 school year, there are still more unknowns than knowns — including the crucial per-pupil funding number that comes from the state.

There are also major unknowns regarding what next year will even look like and whether students will be back in the buildings or doing some combination of distance learning with in-class time.

Whether enrollment numbers drop significantly also remains a big unknown.

“We are in the waiting game still,” said Steamboat Springs School District Finance Director Mark Rydberg at the June 1 school board meeting. “That’s the biggest message I have for you.”

There has been a $510 million lifeline for school districts statewide from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in the form of federal coronavirus relief money. So far, districts have received funds from two pots of money. Another $44 million in federal emergency education relief was announced last week.

However, the money comes with restrictions. For now, federal rules dictate it be used by the end of the calendar year only for purposes related to COVID-19 response.

For the Steamboat district, one source of federal COVID-19-related money gave them $1.2 million. The deficit Rydberg is estimating is $1.3 million.

“That distribution has very restrictive spending guidelines and, therefore, may not be able to affect our budget beyond a few thousand dollars unless guidelines are adjusted,” said South Routt School District Superintendent Rim Watson.

Polis’ executive order talks about the money being used to assist schools with following public health measures, improving remote learning, facilitating social distancing and making up for lost learning during school closures, among other allowable uses.

There are also some areas of savings, like fuel from reduced busing —however, fuel prices have been below average — not using substitute teachers during long distance learning and some reduction in facility cleaning and utilities.

Hayden School District Superintendent Christy Sinner mentioned the school’s water bill has seen a significant reduction, and they’ve had to purchase a lot less paper products.

“Kids flush a lot of toilets,” she said.

But in the bigger picture, those savings are minimal she said, given 80% of the budget goes toward salaries, and “we continue to pay everyone,” Sinner said.

At this time, Routt County’s three districts are bracing for a cut somewhere in the neighborhood of 10%, but without knowing the per-pupil funding formula, enrollment or what expenditures will look like, that is also just an estimate at this point.

While the Steamboat Springs School District has proposed not renewing contracts for about 40 probationary employees, that is now looking unlikely, Superintendent Brad Meeks said at the June 1 meeting.

“We are in a better position than we were a couple weeks ago,” Meeks said.

That option has essentially been taken off the table, Rydberg said.

Rydberg went through some other cost reduction options with the board, like five to eight furlough days for everyone, including administrators. Collective bargaining negotiations are still in progress for Steamboat, thus many details, including precisely how the funding from ballot measure 4A will be allocated, are not finalized.

Rydberg said, under the district’s current cost-cutting plan, all open positions have been evaluated for restructure and redesign, and all new positions next year will be filled with long-term subs.

Payroll currently makes up 81.4% of general fund expenses, Rydberg said.

Rydberg identified other potential staffing changes — but only through attrition and open positions — of a total of 15.52 full-time employees.

That reduces 2.2 employees at Soda Creek Elementary School and 2.7 at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Steamboat Springs Middle School will have 0.12 less, and Steamboat Springs High School would have three fewer employees.

Sinner said Hayden also has made cuts through restructuring or eliminating open positions and attrition. The district has also made some other minor reductions, like taking a half hour off the day of the administrative assistant.

Watson said South Routt is also preparing for cuts of around 10% to 15% from the general fund.

“We are taking advantage of attrition opportunities: three teachers either retired or left positions at Soroco High School,” Watson said of the cuts the district has identified thus far. “We’ve only filled two of the positions and have the same type situations in district-wide maintenance/custodians and at our preschool.”

Districts have also seen cuts in what they were anticipating from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund, which is generated through sales tax.

At its Wednesday meeting, the education fund board approved a revised grant budget, awarding $2.8 million in grants — a reduction of $1 million, or about 25%, from the previous year.

More than $6 million in grant requests were received by the fund board from the three districts and local nonprofits.

However, as typically the grants are designated for very specific requests, this year, the fund is allowing for more flexibility in spending.

Grants awarded to school districts include approximately $2.2 million to Steamboat Springs School District; $140,269 to Hayden School District; $112,215 to South Routt School District; and $112,215 to Mountain Village Montessori Charter School.

The three districts are aiming to finalize their budgets by the end of June, but that could change as finalization is somewhat dependent on when they get the necessary numbers from the state.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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