Facing a nearly 5% state funding decrease, Roaring Fork Schools implement pay freeze in next year’s budget | PostIndependent.com
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Facing a nearly 5% state funding decrease, Roaring Fork Schools implement pay freeze in next year’s budget

CARES Act funds can't be used to backfill state budget cuts

Post Independent education news graphic

Roaring Fork School District employees will take what is effectively a pay cut for the coming school year as part of a trimmed-down $73 million general fund budget approved by the school board on Tuesday.

But no positions are being cut, at least for this next school year.

The budget for 2020-21 includes more than $1.8 million in direct budget cuts, prompted by a 4.8% decrease in Colorado per-pupil funding to district schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

That reduction was due to state budget cuts for K-12 education in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

The district will use nearly $2.2 million in one-time reserve funds and $592,000 in one-time rural sustainability funds to help buffer a $4.6 million budget shortfall, said Nathan Markham, finance director for the district, during the board’s special video-conference meeting Tuesday morning.

The board — reluctantly but with little choice given the financial realities of the ongoing public health crisis — unanimously approved a budget that is to include a total appropriation of roughly $111.2 million.

By far the biggest impact was the decision to freeze teacher salaries and to suspend cost-of-living increases for other staff.

Teachers and staff would have been due pay increases averaging 1.8% this coming year. The salary freeze alone will account for $859,000 in budget reductions for 2020-21, Markham said.

“This will actually result in a reduction in net pay for all staff due to a state-mandated increase in the employee contribution to PERA (Public Employees Retirement Association) of 1.25%,” Markham noted in his budget summary.

That contribution amount is increasing from 8.75% of salary to 10%, affecting all district employees, he said.

The pay cuts signal an abrupt change in direction for the local school district, which in early March had been discussing a possible mill levy override election this November to address low teacher pay.

“The reduction in take-home pay of all district employees is a step backward from the progress we were hoping to make in 2020-21,” Markham said, pointing to a “challenging school funding climate in Colorado and the related impact on teacher salaries, which lag about $7,000 behind the national average.

“This fact is amplified for all staff in RFSD, where the cost-of-living significantly exceeds state and national averages,” he said.

However, the mill levy proposal was taken off the table as the economic impacts of the coronavirus started to hit.

“While the mill levy override was put on hold, the goal of paying a living wage to RFSD staff remains a top priority, and work toward this goal will resume as soon as the economic outlook improves,” Markham wrote in his budget summary.

As it did across the country and around the world, the public health emergency in Colorado also forced school buildings to close in late March, and for learning to shift to an online delivery format for the remainder of the semester.

Roaring Fork Schools received $3.6 million in federal CARES Act relief funds to deal with the cost of those impacts. But, those dollars are “supplementary in nature,” and cannot be directly used to backfill the budget shortfall, Markham also explained.

They could, however, be used to create opportunities for teachers and other staff to earn extra income to offset the wage freeze, through student tutoring and other areas where the funds are allowed to be spent, he said.

An alternative to the wage freeze would have been to use employee furlough days to offset the budget shortfall, outgoing Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Shannon Pelland said. But the consensus in discussing the options with teachers and others through the Interest-Based Bargaining Committee process was to freeze wages for the year and see where things stand going into 2021-22, she said.

The use of one-time reserves and other available funds for this coming year will likely make the following year even more difficult to budget for, Markham also advised.

“Given the potential for additional cuts in 2021-22, the district will work with staff, parents and the community next year to develop a long-term sustainable plan to address funding reductions,” he said.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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