Several members of the public are once again questioning the priorities of the Douglas County School District. Although state funding to education is expected to increase slightly next year, it was quite a surprise recently to learn that significant cuts were being proposed for middle and high schools in order to fund struggling elementary schools. Major financial decisions that impact schools are typically vetted by the board of education before budgets are handed out to principals, but that did not happen this year. This lack of transparency resulted in a parent-driven town hall meeting.
It's important to understand that middle and high schools have taken the brunt of cuts over the last nine years. Cuts to high schools in 2012, taken in the same year the district posted a $17 million operating surplus, forced all schools onto a new schedule that provided less instructional time for students. This decision resulted in the district paying $2 million back to the state of Colorado when a routine audit found that numerous students failed to meet the minimum requirements for full-time status. Understandably, parents are concerned about this new proposal and the impact it will have on high school students.
All schools have significant needs, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining excellent teachers, addressing social/emotional health and student safety, and improving academic achievement. Furthermore, students in schools with lower enrollment have fewer choices, and often less individualized support, than their peers in a larger school. This is the situation that a number of Douglas County elementary schools currently find themselves in due to slower growth in student enrollment.
The Douglas County School District is calling on secondary schools to take a cut to supplement impacted elementary schools. The justification for doing so lies in the new market-based pay system that the district recently admitted is flawed and pays secondary teachers more than elementary. Now the district is turning toward the middle and high schools to absorb the higher cost for each teacher in their building without providing them adequate funds to offset the cost. The total cut for secondary schools was originally estimated between $2.7 million and $3.5 million, and then lowered after public outcry to between $1.2 million and $2 million.
Central administration could easily absorb this entire cut. In the current school year, Douglas County has budgeted $18.5 million more in central administration departments, not including special education, than they did just two years ago. The Douglas County School District has been working toward a costly goal to become a software provider by creating a customized software system. This decision has tripled the size of their IT budget in recent years. To date, efforts to launch the product have been unsuccessful, pointing to IT as a source for cuts.
The most important discussion that has yet to occur regards the impact of cuts on student achievement. Douglas County School District is no longer accredited with distinction. At the Jan. 3 board of education meeting, a district presentation regarding the implementation of new competency graduation requirements that are state-mandated for the class of 2021 showed that 25 percent of Douglas County students do not meet the state's ACT requirement for graduation. This would indicate that additional resources should be directed to secondary schools, rather than using them as the source for more cuts.
The Douglas County Board of Education needs to adjust course, hold central administration accountable for massive increases in department budgets, and focus on providing a high quality education to all students in Douglas County. Prioritizing students over growing central administration budgets should be an easy decision.
Laura Mutton is a parent of two former Douglas County students and the president of the Strong Schools Coalition, a nonpartisan organization working to inform and engage the community to positively impact the Douglas County School District. She also works as an accounting software developer.