May 2005

Budget crunch worries Dolores teachers: Group brings concerns to school board

By Kelly Fox

As the Dolores School District Re-4A begins work on a budget for the 2005/06 school year, a group of teachers presented concerns about the forthcoming budget during the Dolores school board’s regular meeting April 21. The group has been dubbed CSAP (Concerned Staff And Parents), a play on the acronym for Colorado Student Assessment Program.

“(The presentation) was the work of many, many, many staff people,” said Meg Neeley, a third-grade teacher at Dolores Elementary School. “(The group) is all teachers that had any interest at all in this budget situation, which I would say, roughly, would be 90 percent of staff people.”

The presentation was created after teachers were informed that cuts will be necessary for next year’s budget, part of a three-year trend in which the teachers want more participation. “ We want to have a voice and have it heard by the board members and the administration, in public,” Neeley said. “We wanted to make sure we were heard.”

Neeley said the teachers believe the district is cutting too much out of academics and not enough from other areas with less direct effect on students and programs. The teachers have communicated to district officials that they are suffering because of the budget cuts, and some even feel they are being punished for suggesting cuts that affect others.

“Changes were made here and there, like the calendar change,” Neeley said. “There was a change made in sick leave. These things were getting dictated to us, which does happen sometimes in a job, but then we would react to the change and administration would reconsider and change their position. So we thought if you are going to listen to us, why don’t you listen to us beforehand?”

The Dolores School District’s budget woes began in 2003 after voters defeated a proposed mill-levy increase that would have provided funds to expand district facilities. Neeley said the administration at the time saw an opportunity for expansion because of the district’s increasing enrollment numbers and strong budget position. “ A couple of years ago, our district had a very healthy budget,” Neeley said. “We had a huge budget. And the administration at that time spent quite a bit of it on a master plan, which looked into expanding the school district. At the time, it looked like that was a good idea.”

The district’s master plan included increased classroom space, an update of the science building and lighting for the athletic department. Against the recommendations of an auditor and the district’s own business manager, a commitment was made to the plan before the mill-levy vote. Some $234,000 was spent on surveys and architectural design for the master plan — one that wouldn‘t be implemented. — When voters defeated the proposal in November 2003, the district found itself in a financially unstable position. The premature expenditure of $234,000 for the master plan combined with a subsequent decline in enrollment and state and federal budget cuts started the district’s budget nose dive.

Now, with more cuts on the block for next year, the teachers have come together to defend academics and fight for fewer cuts in programs and teachers’ salaries.

“We’re concerned about where the cuts are going to be made this time,” Kevin Vaughn said during the teachers’ presentation. “What’s going to happen – how is it going to affect programs and the students that we teach.”

Vaughn, a fifth-grade teacher at Dolores Elementary School, said that many of the teachers in the district are there because they want to be in Dolores, not because it’s the best-paying district in the area.

“We came here, I came here, because I had heard about the staff that I wanted to work with,” he said. However, he added, Dolores has the lowest base pay compared to other nearby districts and the teachers’ pay increases over the past three years haven’t kept pace with inflation. Vaughn and the other teachers are concerned about the ability of the district to maintain a quality staff and to attract the best teachers to the area.

“It’s very much a concern to myself and, I’m sure, many of the staff members and the community members, that we maintain the highest-quality staff in our district and not lose them to other districts locally or further away,” he said.

As an example, Vaughn explained that he has nine years of teaching experience and would be moving to the tenth salary step next year. If he moved to a neighboring school district, his nine years’ experience would only get him on the seventh step of that district’s pay scale. However, the loss of two years’ experience, Vaughn said, would result in a $2,000 raise in pay over what the Dolores district is offering him to teach there next year. However, Vaughn said, most of the teachers want to be in Dolores because they care about the community.

“Our interests in being here are the students in our care,” he said. “We want the best-quality education we can provide in this area. We want to be the place the children want to come, the families want to come for their children to go to school.”

But if cuts continue to be made in academics and programs, the teachers worry that Dolores won’t be the district families choose because the teachers will not be able to provide students with opportunities to pursue academic excellence.

“Cutting (programs) means we might see more decrease (in student numbers),” Vaughn said. “We’re cutting the budget, cutting the programs — people are going to start leaving and going to where the programs are offered, or people are definitely not going to be coming here.”

For the 2004/05 school year, academic funding was reduced by more than $96,000 and the elementary school’s counselor position was cut to save $26,760. By comparison, athletic funds only dropped $5,000 and administrative spending went up $25,466.

“When cuts have to be made — and we know cuts have to be made from time to time, especially now — let’s see them more across the board,” Neeley said. “We felt, after we looked at all the numbers and listened to people and put it all on paper, … maybe there could be a little more equitable cutting. Let’s look at cutting across the board, not just in one or two areas.”

The teachers said they understand that a large portion of the district’s budget goes to salaries and that most salaries are in the academic departments.

However, their concern is to maintain programs that benefit students. They suggested the district look at controlling the budget more and cutting only in areas that won’t affect students.

“It has become personal,” Vaughn said. “We don’t want it to be personal. Our interest is to start working as a team and get the district going in a direction we want as a unified group.” In an effort to begin the teamwork involved in hammering out the district’s next budget, the teachers came to the meeting with some possible solutions. In addition to hiring a grantwriter to apply for more funds, the teachers suggested the district consider a four-day school week.

According to information from the Colorado Department of Education, 28 percent of the school districts in Colorado are on four-day school weeks.

“Those are mostly rural districts,” Vaughn said. “Rural districts have to do much more transportation than the big-city districts. … If you cut the one day out of transportation, that would be 20 percent of the gas budget for that particular line item.” And with skyrocketing gasoline prices, the savings could be significant, he added.

The teachers also suggested making cuts that don’t affect academics and they urged the board to apply the district’s goals and objectives when deciding what cuts to make. Those goals include maintaining a quality staff and quality programs and involving the stakeholders in budget decisions.

“We would like more inclusion in the decision-making processes that are happening during this tight budget time,” Neeley said. “I know that all schools in Colorado are going through tight budgets, but let us help, let us tell you what we’re feeling and what we’re seeing.”

The school board members present during the teachers’ presentation seemed receptive to their ideas and willing to consider their needs.

“We’ll go back and take a look at all their requests to see how it best fits with our needs, applications and resources,” said Larry Archibeque, superintendent of the Dolores School District. “Then we’ll do a board retreat and see how it fits.”

Board member Theresa Phillips thanked the teachers for an impressive presentation and assured them that their efforts don’t go unnoticed.

“We want you to know that we do know … what you accomplish.” Phillips said. “There are so many of you and you do such a wonderful job. This is my village as well. I cherish you. I appreciate you. And I really feel like the intangibles that keep us here are what we really strive to keep in our lives, and this (presentation) is very important — this accommodates the intangibles.”

The teachers will be watching closely over the next few months as the district plans its budget for the 2005/06 school year and their hope is the school board will use them as a resource for planning the necessary cuts.

“We’re saying we’d like to get some input,” Vaughn said. “The teachers are in the classrooms, it’s going to affect them and they’d like some input.” And it appears the dedicated teachers in Dolores are prepared to defend their ability to provide students with a quality education.

“You really have to want to be in Dolores to be (a teacher) here right now,” Neeley said. “because we are kind of the underdogs in some respects. And yet I think we’ve got the biggest commitment and the biggest heart of any group of teachers I’ve ever known.”