The Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school district may face a budget deficit of up to $750,000 this year, potentially eating into the district’s savings for a fifth consecutive year.
“The budget is not in good shape, but it’s not our fault,” said Superintendent Alex Carter. “We’re simply not funded appropriately.”
The projected $750,000 shortfall is a worst-case scenario, Carter said. At the end of the year, any remaining line-item appropriations would be transferred back to the general fund to help offset the deficit, possibly reducing it to only $250,000 for the fiscal year, Carter said.
“We’re spending the money smart,” Carter said. “We’re spending it on our students and their needs.”
Even with the end-of-year transfer, Carter said the district could not continue operating under a deficit, like it has every single year since 2009. Described as a short-term spending strategy, Carter said the savings would eventually disappear.
“If we keep tapping our reserves, we will be broke within four years,” he said.
Carter said that Colorado lawmakers have slashed education funding across the state by $1.2 billion since 2009. The district’s share of those lost revenues is about $3 million, including the latest legislative cut of $212,000 for this fiscal year, which was announced in December.
Despite legislative cuts, which totaled more than $3.3 million across the state this year, the largest factor contributing to the district’s projected deficit is increased health costs, which is projected at $400,000 for the fiscal year, district finance director Wendy Everett said.
The legislative cuts, known as the “negative factor,” have reduced annual per pupil spending across the district to a low of $6,309. Average per pupil funding in Colorado is $7,534.
In Dolores, per pupil funding is $6,946. In Mancos, per pupil spending is $7,975.
“Both Mancos and Dolores voters have approved mill levy overrides,” Carter said. “That’s why they have more money to spend on students.”
If Cortez voters approved an override, Carter said he’d want to use the extra funding to extend the school year and increase school security and student access to technology.
“These three things we will need forever,” Carter said. “These needs aren’t going away.”
District officials are exploring the idea of proposing a mill levy increase, which would require voter approval. At 18.933, the district’s current mill levy generates $850,000 annually for local school funding.
“It’s up to the people to decide whether students are a resource to invest in or if they are a drain on resources,” Carter said.
Carter said he thinks that most of the community would support a tax increase.
“The people should invest in these kids, because they never leave,” he said. “They are, literally, this community’s future.”
The district is also working to form a financial advisory committee that would explore other potential revenue streams. One idea that’s surfaced is looking into the possibility of receiving funds from casino revenues.
Everett encouraged community members to be proactive.
“Our parents, our moms and dads, they need to demand their legislators restore education funding,” she said.
Earlier this month, 168 of the state’s 178 superintendents signed a letter to the governor and members of the legislature that stated that Colorado’s public schools face an “extreme state of inadequate funding.” The superintendents said funding cuts have caused increased class size, reduced services, and deferred critical infrastructure investments.
“While we have done everything we can to support students through these budget reductions, we know the lack of funding has had a negative impact on the education of Colorado students,” the letter states.
The superintendents demanded that the legislature reinstate a quarter of the $1.2 billion in lost funding, some $275 million, this year.
If approved, Carter said the measure would add some $600,000 in funding for RE-1 schools and generate a fiscal-year surplus.
Carter, Mancos Superintendent Brian Hanson and Dolores Superintendent Scott Cooper signed the letter.
“As superintendents, we have a moral and ethical duty to advocate for the children we serve and the overall economic well-being of our communities,” the letter reads.
“We are at a crisis,” Carter said.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, one in four school districts spends $10,000 or more per pupil. Those same 46 districts have an average graduation rate of 90 percent or higher.
According to the Colorado School Finance Project, the national average for per pupil spending is nearly $12,000. Mississippi and Alabama, two Deep South states with a long history of underfunding public education, both spend more per pupil than Colorado, according to the report.