Durango School District 9-R failed to raise enough money to cover an annual loan payment for a stadium renovation completed in 2016 at Durango High School, which has left the district scrambling to pay a budget shortfall ahead of planned budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year.
Emails sent by the school district and athletic department have some students fearing money raised by individual sports teams will be used to pay off this year’s shortfall. But school district officials Friday promised that would not be the case.
They have been less clear in previous communications.
In an interview Friday with The Durango Herald, Superintendent Dan Snowberger said funds raised by specific teams will not be used to cover the shortfall caused, at least in part, by the annual $212,000 stadium loan payment.
Student athletes set out to protect funding for sports this week in front of the school board and voiced concern about how the loan might hurt programming.
“It is devastating for me to think that my little brother or his friends and my teammates might suffer because of a decision we had no part of,” said Caleb McGrath, a rising senior on the soccer and football teams.
Before the meeting, a letter signed by Snowberger, Deputy Superintendent Andy Burns and Director of Finance Samantha Gallagher that was sent to district parents May 23 suggested that funds raised by specific teams, known as 74 Funds, might be used to cover the shortfall.
74 Funds are used to cover team dinners and other functions not covered by the district. Those funds are typically raised by students and parents of individual sports teams. So, the idea that they would be used to pay off a stadium loan didn’t sit well with some students and parents.
The letter said: “As a last resort, Durango High School may seek contributions from the 74 fund to cover any budgetary shortfall that the school cannot cover through other means.”
The letter was drafted in response to an email sent May 20 by outgoing Athletic Director Adam Bright, who told coaches the athletic department had a budget shortfall of more than $100,000.
Bright said 74 Funds could be moved to cover the shortfall, although that was not a preferred option and he wanted limited use of those funds.
Snowberger said Friday that 74 Funds definitely won’t be used, despite his May 23 letter that said 74 Funds could be used as a “last resort.”
“For whatever reason, the information was given that 74 Funds were going to be the solution,” Snowberger said Friday.
Stadium expensesThe district spent $2.55 million to renovate the stadium because the field was compacted and uneven. The field was so unsafe that a middle school student suffered a broken spine on the turf, Snowberger said. The track was in such poor shape, the school couldn’t host meets.
The district paid for a portion of the stadium up front with capital funds, and it took out a $1.9 million loan for the rest, according to the district.
When the district took out the loan, the district and Durango High School agreed to split the annual $212,000 loan payments that must be paid until 2026.
While the field was being planned, the principal and former Athletic Director Dave Preszler had a number of fundraising ideas to cover the high school’s expense, but “none of those have materialized,” Snowberger said. Other fundraising ideas since have never come to fruition.
Funds go unraised Snowberger said, in the district’s letter to parents, Bright was informed of his responsibility to raise $100,000 for the loan payment on several occasions.
In May 2018, Snowberger said Bright was told the stadium payment would be moving from the capital funds budget where it had been for two years into the athletic budget.
In January 2019, Bright was informed that because no fundraising for the field had been done in the fall semester, Bright’s fundraising goal was reduced to $50,000, according to the district letter.
About $14,000 was raised for the stadium through advertising. But no funds were raised through direct fundraising, the letter said.
Bright said he was unaware of his responsibility to raise the money for the stadium.
“Honestly, I think just for some reason along the way there was some kind of communication deficiency,” Bright said Thursday in an interview with the Herald. “When we noticed at the end that we were operating under a different set of numbers than what we were able to see, it all came to a head in May when the message got sent out. It’s not the end of the world, but we need to make adjustments and roll with the punches. It’s possible that the 74 Fund will be accessed to make sure we get through. I communicated to the coaches and said we are looking at the fundraising accounts as a last-resort type of situation, and so far we haven’t had to go there.”
‘Red flags’ raisedSnowberger said “red flags” were raised about the athletic budget in May when the loan payment became due. But other factors contributed to the budget shortfall, including lower-than-expected ticket sales that should have been managed throughout the year, he said.
When this year’s budget shortfall came to light, the district made it a priority to fund postseason play for spring sports before making cuts, Snowberger said.
On May 20, Bright wrote an email to coaches informing them that up to $500 could be used from individual 74 Fund team accounts, as long as the accounts had sufficient money to cover the expense without completely depleting the account.
“Durango School District leadership is working under the auspices that 74 Funds (fundraising accounts) are in fact district funds and not merely custodial accounts,” he wrote in his email to coaches.
In an interview Thursday with the Herald, Bright said using 74 Fund money is not something he would personally support. To date, no money has been moved from the 74 Fund, he said.
Teams to settle some expensesBut some funding raised by teams will have to be used to cover expenses that were inappropriately charged to the district’s general fund, Snowberger said.
“That’s something that we’ll be very transparent about,” he said.
In some cases, teams may have used general funds to cover team dinners and other expenses not covered by the district, he said.
Teams will be expected to cover only expenses they incurred and not expenses incurred by other teams on campus, Snowberger said. Information about those expenses will be shared with coaches, he said.
Looking forwardBright’s final day with the district will be Monday. He accepted an assistant commissioner position with the Colorado High School Activities Association in late March. New Athletic Director Ryan Knorr will begin in late July and will be responsible for fundraising for athletics and the field loan repayment.
Knorr will face a tighter budget than his predecessor.
Snowberger said the athletic department will see a $100,000 cut, bringing its total budget for the 2019-20 school year to $1 million to cover travel, game officials and coaches’ salaries.
Bright said the goal is to absorb those cuts without reducing programming, and Snowberger said Friday there were no plans to reduce offerings for freshman-level or junior varsity sports at this time.
The cuts to athletics are part of districtwide cuts for all departments because of increased salary, insurance and retirement costs.
As part of the cuts, purchases of new uniforms will be put on a more regular schedule based on need, Snowberger said.
Bright said the district will look at travel expenses and consider not staying in hotels overnight during regular trips to Grand Junction. Some teams could take mini buses instead of full-size buses.
DHS teams are entering the second year of a two-year schedule, so teams have already made commitments to travel to games around the state. After this two-year cycle, those travel budgets could be addressed before the 2020-21 seasons, Bright said.
District officials will meet with Knorr in early June to discuss fundraising efforts that could start as soon as August, the district’s letter said.
“I will make sure that payment is raised next year,” Snowberger said.
A meeting for parents about athletic funding will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the school district’s board room at its administration building at 201 E. 12th St.