District 9-R’s finances in best shape since 2008

Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018 12:25 AM
Art Chase
Steve Ruddell

The Finance Advisory Committee (FAC) is a voluntary independent oversight body which periodically (twice a year) reports to the Board of Education on the health of the district’s financial position.

[Image:1,mugshot]In the Herald’s March 24 article, “Independent Committee Helps 9-R Financial Transparency,” the FAC reported on its 2017-2018 charges and why the FAC was created. During the board’s monthly meeting on June 19, the FAC reported on major changes in the district’s finances since its last report in January, as well as areas of confidence and on-going long-term areas of concern. What’s important to know is that the FAC reported that it has no major concerns regarding the 2018-2019 budget, as amended, and that the FAC maintains a high level of confidence in the district’s spending priorities, which includes how voter-approved 2016 mill levy increases are being spent.

Several major changes in the district’s financial position are included in the approved 2018-2019 budget that can be found on the district’s website. On the expenditure side, the budget includes 9-R community-supported increases in school-level staff for social and emotional learning, and expenditures for safety measures.

[Image:2,mugshot]The board also increased the minimum hourly pay for support staff to $13 and increased staff at Durango High School to reduce teaching periods in a way that aligns DHS with middle school planning workloads. Significant growth in Connections Academy, Colorado’s online school, may affect 9-R’s eligibility for federal grants, state-level categorical funding, and the state’s portion of future per-pupil funding may be put at risk.

On the revenue side, the 2018 School Finance Act formula increased the state’s portion of total program funding (also known as state equalization) by approximately $4.3 million, providing much-needed additional funding to spend on the programs mentioned above.

The FAC identified several areas of confidence in the district’s financial position that included the district’s response to its annual audit findings, and its efforts to improve transparency and maintain community trust. The FAC also reported a high level of confidence in Superintendent Dan Snowberger’s ability to manage eligibility issues in additional state and federal funding that may result from the growth in student enrollment currently being experienced by Connections Academy.

Additionally, the FAC reported confidence in the district’s creation of a multi-stakeholder Long-Range Planning Committee to address the shortfall in funding for capital projects and deferred maintenance, as well as potential solutions being pursued by the district to ensure that 9-R’s health insurance benefit program is sustainable.

Although the FAC expressed confidence in the district’s efforts to ensure a sustainable health benefits program, and to optimally fund capital projects and deferred maintenance, these remain long-term areas of concern. As reported to the board in January, the continued increase in the district’s contribution to PERA, Colorado’s public employee retirement program (currently at 20.15 percent of each employee’s salary), reduces the district’s ability to fund other needs.

On a positive note, due primarily to the 9-R community’s support to provide a high-quality education for our children, it’s important to keep in mind how far the district has come since the great recession that began in late 2008. To put this in perspective, between the 2008 and 2018 school years, Durango has not received approximately $42.9 million in state-level funding required by Colorado law (known as the negative factor). As it has turned out, the 2010 and 2016 voter-approved mill levy increases were critical to enable the district to maintain class sizes significantly below the state average while continuing to attract and retain quality teachers and staff, and to make investments in technology and safety measures.

Although significant financial concerns remain (as mentioned earlier), in comparison with the significant budgetary challenges that the district could have been living with due to the negative factor, the 9-R community’s financial support has helped create the most stable financial situation that it has faced in 10 years.

Art Chase and Steve Ruddell are co-chairmen of the Durango School District 9-R Finance Advisory Committee.