OURAY – The best news of the year for the Ouray School District (besides Governor Hickenlooper’s announcement this week that he wants to restore the cuts he had previously planned for this and next year to the state’s K-12 budget) was announced with little fanfare to a small audience of teachers, administrators and board members at a school board meeting earlier this month.
Here, in an unflinching review of the district’s four-year financial picture, Board Secretary Jerry Hellman found a lot more “good” than “bad” and “ugly” stuff to highlight.
Among the items on Hellman’s “good” list:
The Ouray School has been accredited with distinction by the Colorado Department of Education for two years running. Its students are graduating and being accepted at high-quality schools. Its faculty, the “heart of the school,” Hellman said, “remains a strong team dedicated to educating all of our children.”
The school has great community support, as reflected in a vibrant volunteer program, and the passage of a mill-levy override in 2008 to finance a Gifted and Talented program and teacher retention (a euphemism for salary retention).
A strategic plan was developed and implemented. “And most important,” Hellman noted, “we’re actually following it. It wasn’t something that just went on the shelf and sat there. When we had to make strategic financial decisions, we used that as the guide.”
In a climate often painted as dismal for public education across Colorado, the Ouray School District remains financially strong. In fact, as Superintendent Scott Pankow noted, the school’s recent audit numbers showed that expenditures this year are actually less than revenues – a big surprise. The numbers are healthy enough that the school has been able to put some money back into its contingency fund this year, rather than withdrawing from its “rainy day fund” as it previously feared it would have to do.
But the picture’s not all pretty.
It was a big disappointment to many public education advocates in Colorado when Prop. 103 failed in November. The measure would have boosted education revenues over a five-year period by slightly raising sales and income taxes.
And earlier this month, the Ouray School District received word it would receive less money from local property taxes due to declining property values – $41,987 less in the coming year, to be exact.
Also in the “bad” category, Hellman acknowledged a decreasing student head count (the school’s enrollment has dropped from an all-time high of 256 in 2007 to 176 in 2011), the need for improvement in targeted academic areas, and high turnover in the school’s administration over recent years.
Finally, addressing the “ugly,” Hellman pointed to financial pressure that has resulted in staff reductions in recent years, including the elimination of a high school math teacher position, and cutbacks at the administrative level.
“Unfortunately, the Governor has announced there will be at least an $89 million cutback in education funding from the state again next year,” Hellman said. (Gov. Hickenlooper announced this week that, due to an unexpected uptick in tax revenues in Colorado, he is now reconsidering those cuts.) This comes on the heels of a $255 million cut to public education in Colorado last year, and another significant cut the year before that. “No quick turnaround in headcount is foreseen, and we’ve had a salary freeze this year. That’s ugly stuff.”
Maybe so, but teachers and administrators agree that morale throughout the Ouray School this year is remarkably high.
“It’s palpable – the energy and positiveness,” said Pankow. “It’s amazing.”
“It’s still a ‘kids first’ mentality, even with these scary economic times,” added Dean of Students Di Rushing. Her job title is a new one at Ouray School. The position was created and offered to Rushing, who has taught high school English at the school for years, as one of many cost-saving measures adopted by the district as it grappled with how to slash $430,000 from its budget.
In addition to teaching, Rushing helps with many of the tasks that would otherwise be tended to by a full-time principal, since the school doesn’t have one of those anymore.
Another key to solving the budget riddle was cutting the amount of money the school spends on supplies, activities, operations and maintenance, staff development opportunities, travel, and “everything else” that wasn’t directly tied to the teaching of children, in order to protect as many of its teaching positions and programs as possible.
In all, the school was able to nip and tuck its way to cutting a full $200,000 from its spending in the current school year.
For example, teachers must now order their own supplies out of a fixed classroom budget (which has itself been cut in half), rather than turning to a fully stocked supply closet whenever they run out of something. Some of these costs have been passed on to parents, who suddenly found copy paper and dry-erase markers among the items on their student’s supply lists this year.
But, Superintendent Pankow acknowledges, the teachers themselves bear the brunt of cuts to their supply budget, by paying for stuff they and their students need out of their own pockets.
The school library is another place that is feeling the pinch. Librarian Nancy Nixon did not order any new books at all this year, and she no longer has a full-time aide to assist with the busy flow of students who pass through the library during every hour of the school day.
It’s frustrating, but overall Nixon remains upbeat about the situation.
“The way I really feel is that belts can be tightened, and it’s not that bad,” she said.
It’s not perfect, but the nip-tuck-keep-your-chin-up strategy is working for now. In spite of a total drop of about $1.2 million in state and federal compensation to the Ouray School over the past several years, the school has managed to preserve not only its key academic programs, but also its arts programs, athletics and other activities, including field trips such as the annual eighth grade trip to Catalina Island.
The school has actually been able to add a couple of college-credit and Advanced Placement courses this school year, and will offer a fully accredited flight school to students next semester.
Some aspects of belt-tightening have actually had unforeseen benefits, such as increased cooperation and fellowship between the Ouray and Ridgway school districts, which are now sharing teacher development days and transportation to certain athletic events.
“They want to work together,” Pankow said of the teachers in the two districts. “It’s that synergy of getting more people together. You can really grow from each other and bounce ideas off each other in those professional learning communities as they expand. It’s hard to put a dollar figure on the value of that.”