Surplus overstated, says Douglas County School District

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Reports that the Douglas County School District is working with a $66 million budget surplus have been greatly exaggerated.

That is according to the school district, which responded to public outcry about news that it had millions in surplus with a 13-point question-and-answer report, a 4,000-plus word blog from Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen and nearly 50 minutes worth of video productions on the district website — all intended to explain the district budget.

The public relations outreach is an effort to answer the question that began with millions in surplus at a time when the district is facing its fourth year of budget cuts.

“There is not $66 million sitting out there waiting to be spent,” said Randy Barber, Douglas County School District public information officer. “The majority of it is in restricted fund balance, committed to be spent.”

Fagen provided a comprehensive outline of the restricted portion of the $66 million fund balance, which came under scrutiny at the end of 2011, when the school district began contract negotiations with the local teachers union.

The money in the restricted fund balance amounts to about $40 million, allocated for individual school and department funds, a pre-negotiated early retirement agreement, state-mandated Tabor reserve, transportation, supplies, kindergarten and insurance.

A portion of the remaining unrestricted fund balance — $11 million — was spent this year to avoid expected cuts, leaving $15 million in an unrestricted fund balance, Barber said.

“In a school district of this size, we have to have certain contingency funds,” Barber said. “We don’t know what to expect in future state budget cuts, but we know we can expect future growth. If we have to deal with the same amount of funding, we have to have some way to deal with that growth. We have to maintain a reasonable and healthy fund balance.”

Fagen echoed his logic in her blog, calling the fund balance “critically important” to the financial stability of the district. The school district has asked each of its schools to plan on per-student cuts for the coming year of between $50 per student at the elementary school level up to an undetermined amount at the high school level, in the best-case scenario, Barber said.

In the worst case, individual schools could be looking at $100 cuts per student at the middle school level, with high school teachers asked to take on additional classes and face fewer teachers at each school, he said.

“Our goal is to have zero cuts at the elementary school level because we know how critical that elementary level education is,” Barber said. “But again we are planning to do our best to avoid cuts that affect the students.”

Cuts that affect the students rank high for parents who have had enough of the district’s approach to damage control. Jennifer Miller is a parent whose children attend Roxborough Primary School, which she notes was recently ranked fifth from the bottom among Douglas County schools on the coloradoschoolgrades.com website.

In response to Fagen’s January blog post, Miller on Jan. 26 criticized the school for its parade-style welcome to teachers following the district’s unsuccessful bond effort last fall and its failure to offer “practical or realistic” support for parents and students.

“They appear to want to take an Eeyore approach to things as far as the economics of things go, while continually patting themselves on the back at the same time about how wonderful everything is ... which obviously is not the case,” Miller says. “I believe parents, admin (sic) and teachers all need to take responsibility for the things that clearly are not working instead of only giving ourselves kudos. How can I teach our children to succeed when their school is failing??”

By the numbers

Douglas County School District restricted fund balance

$11.7 million - Tabor Reserve: meant to prevent a district default.

$4.8 million - Extended Separation Agreement: This fund is paying those who chose early retirement at the end of fiscal year 2009.

$21.3 million - School & Department Funds: These dollars are allocated to schools and departments within the district. The district previously adopted a policy that allows schools and departments to carry over discretionary monies that had not been spent in any one year. This policy change has resulted in providing schools and departments flexibility in how they spend their money.

$469,096 – Transportation: To cover fluctuations in gasoline prices

$783,000 - Insurance Risk: To meet requirement to maintain a certain amount of money in the event of an insurance payout.

$763,000 - Supplies Inventory: To meet a legal requirement to report all supplies such computers in inventory, toilet paper, paper towels, glue sticks, etc.

$4.5 million - Kindergarten Tuition: Belongs to individual schools as a scholarship fund to finance a full-day kindergarten option for children who are at risk.