CASTLE ROCK – With Detroit on the brink of bankruptcy and lawmakers in Washington, DC gearing up for another fight over the nation’s debt limit, bungling and irresponsibility seem to be the norm when it comes to government budgets, except, perhaps, in Douglas County.
Despite a shaky economy still reeling from the worst recession in modern history, the Douglas County School Board has not only balanced their budget, they’ve also set aside a “rainy day” fund — prudent planning nearly unheard of in an era of bloated government budgets and trillion-dollar deficits.
“We are committed to doing everything possible to meet the needs of our teachers and students, while also being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said the school district’s Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Betz in a recent statement.
But it seems that not everyone appreciates the school board’s steady fiscal stewardship.
Critics of the school board — including pro-union groups — have blasted the board for holding funds in reserve, and stepped up pressure on the school board to spend more money, and spend it faster.
“The current administration has amassed over $80 million dollars in fund balance while our students sit in crowded classrooms,” wrote school board critic Julie Keim in a recent newspaper column.
“This Board continually boasts about being good stewards of your public dollars, but they are neglecting the very purpose for which they were elected – effectively educating all children who are the future of our community and nation,” Keim added.
On the other side, supporters of the board’s reforms say claims of poor student achievement and deteriorating teacher morale simply don’t match up with reality – and they point to the results of recent surveys as evidence.
The Colorado TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading & Learning) survey, for example, revealed that 92 percent of educators in Douglas County said that parents are influential decision-makers in their school – and a higher proportion of Douglas County teachers than educators in other parts of the state said that there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in their school (79 percent).
School board backers also cite an independent evaluation that ranked Douglas County Schools as the highest performing of the state’s most populous school districts.
The analysis, conducted by SchoolDigger.com., ranked Douglas County Schools tops among the state’s largest school districts for 2011-2012, three slots ahead of Littleton Schools, eight slots ahead of Boulder Valley RE2, 13 slots ahead of Cherry Creek Schools, and 29 higher than Jefferson County Schools.
School board member Doug Benevento wasn’t shy about defending the board’s record in Douglas County.
“The Board maintains a one percent rainy day fund to ensure that we can meet unexpected contingencies, like most families in Douglas County we think having some money tucked away is a wise policy,” said Benevento. “That goal in itself is worthy, but another benefit is that it improves our credit rating and allows us to borrow money at a less expensive rate so that we can do more maintenance at our schools with the same amount of money.”
“Overall it is a win-win for our schools and our taxpayers. I would note that the State also maintains a rainy day fund; it has a rainy day fund of about $1.6 billion that they believe provides a cushion against unplanned emergency spending,” added Benevento.
John Carson, the school board president has also noted that the board’s conservative budgeting has made additional funds available to pay good teachers more.
“We’re increasing pay and benefits [for teachers] on average 5.2 percent, building on raises from last year,” Carson told 850-KOA radio’s Mike Rosen in a recent interview. “If you’re in the top category [of highly effective teachers], you can see a raise and benefit increase of up to 9 percent.”
“That’s all possible because of the sound fiscal management – cutting out the layers of administrators,” Carson added. “And now we’re able to reward the great teachers we have.”