DENVER – In an era of bankrupt local governments and a rising national debt, one would think that elected officials who keep their balance sheet firmly in the black would be in high demand. But in Douglas County, the fiscally conservative school board has been attacked by pro-union critics for doing just that.
The school board is under fire for running a multi-million dollar surplus in the midst of one of the worst recessions in recent memory.
It’s not the first time the board has been criticized for applying scrutiny to district expenditures.
District officials also found themselves under attack from the local teachers’ union after they stoppped the district from collecting union dues from teachers paychecks at taxpayer expense, instead requiring the union to cover such costs.
Controversy also erupted after the board decided to end taxpayer funding for union exectives salaries. Previously, a number of full-time union leaders were taking district salaries despite spending no time in the classroom.
The criticism leveled at the school board for retaining a solid surplus during shaky economic times is misguided, say district officials.
Unlike some public sector budgets, Douglas County does not have a “use it or lose it” structure for their schools. Instead, because they employ student-based budgeting — where education dollars follow the students — individual schools have the flexibility to spend money where they deem appropriate rather than spend with the fear they won’t get as much next year.
“In our district, the budget-holder can keep his/her budgeted but unspent money year over year. They have the option to save for a large, one-time purchase,” said Douglas County Schools Superintendent Liz Fagen. “We have been preparing for what we believe is the worst case scenario.”
For example, if a particular school is allocated, $500,000 for new computers and software technology to support their concurrent enrollment courses that allow students to learn computer programming, graphic design or biotechnology, if they don’t use it all during the calendar year they are able to carry it over to the next year.
But some aren’t persuaded by the argument that the fund balance helps to ensure that Douglas County is on secure financial ground or grants additional flexibility to individual schools. They have asserted the citizens of Douglas County are getting a lower return on their taxes because of the fund balance, and they want the board to spend the money.
“Sure, you can explain some of it away as conservative budgeting and efficiencies, but $10.5 million?” board critic Trisha McCombs wrote on her anti-school board blog. “That is money that should be in the classroom.”
Opponents of the board have also argued that schools should not be permitted to carry forward money allocated to specific departments, and instead want those funds to go back to the district to be dispersed equally among all the schools.
Others, like Douglas County’s Legend High School Principal Corey Wise, pointed out that the flexibility of having department carry over funds allows schools to prioritize according to what kids wish to study.
“We look to spend that money in a purposeful way…we have programs like DCTV, which trains students interested in pursuing broadcast careers. While it’s an expensive component to have, we have software updates every year, and software changes. By saving funds we don’t have to spend this year, we can make those updates in the next few years,” Wise said in a recent interview on “Let’s talk Education,” Castle Rock’s local affairs radio program.
Pine Lane Elementary Principal Danelle Hiatt agrees, she pointed out that in her community, class size is of utmost importance to parents. “No more than 27 kids in a class is what they think is appropriate and that’s not easy. But to achieve that it means we have to make cuts in other areas… we reduced administrative staffing, some certified staffing in areas that weren’t tied to our mission and our vision and reduced classified staffing to keep class sizes at a reasonable level,” said Hiatt.
School leaders say they must be able to make decisions about how to spend resources in terms of staffing and programs. The more “unlocked” dollars a principal controls, the more autonomy that principal has over creating the school that meet the needs of the students in the school.
“Students register for the classes and electives they wish to take in the spring of the previous year, we then look at these needs and hire from that, so we end up building the school that students want,” Wise added.