Roaring Fork District budget system gives schools flexibility | PostIndependent.com

Roaring Fork District budget system gives schools flexibility

STEM teacher Scott Anderson helps his first-grade students sign-in to their accounts before taking a test on bridges at Glenwood Springs Elementary School.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Roaring Fork Schools had more than half a million dollars in funding not spent in the previous school year that they carried over to the current academic year, a reflection of how the district has changed its budgeting processes.

The amount of funds unused and brought into the school year that began in August totaled $606,000, a matter of concern for some board members, according to Shannon Pelland, Roaring Fork School District assistant superintendent and chief financial officer.

In a memo presented to the RFSD board of education last week, Pelland provided an update about what the individual schools are doing with the funds, and explained the value of a system that allows schools to carry over more funds.

“The money overall is used so much more strategically, because of the wisdom [schools have] of knowing, on-site, what you need, and having the flexibility to use it that way,” Superintendent Rob Stein said at the Dec. 12 meeting.

The district changed its budgeting system in the 2014-15 school year to give schools “more autonomy and flexibly in developing a budget plan to meet each individual school’s strategic goals,” the memo said.

In the past, schools were restricted to using FTEs for staff, and discretionary funds for supplies and materials. Any funds left over from the discretionary fund could be carried over to the next year to be used exclusively for materials and supplies.

One of the changes was that staffing funds, allocated by full-time equivalent units (FTEs), can be put to other uses, with some restrictions, and money formerly allocated for supplies can be used for staffing.

In determining budgets, district schools have a number of guidelines and restrictions. There are certain restricted line items; for example, a school must fund a principal and assistant principal.

The second tier of budget items are more negotiable. A school must spend a certain amount on special education or English language development, for instance, but how they spend that money and how many teachers they hire can be flexible. District administrators still scrutinize each school’s budget to ensure the money is being spent properly and in line with school and district goals.

There is another set of funds that schools may use as they wish, with no restrictions.

“We give our schools charter-like discretion over our budgets,” Stein said. As the process continues, Stein expects more innovation in how schools allocate the funds.

Six district schools have carryover funds above the maximum “recommended carryover” limit, but each has presented the district with a convincing plan to use the funds. Glenwood Springs Middle School, for example, ended the previous school year with $112,935, which equals 4 percent of its budget. The funds will go toward ensuring the expeditionary learning program will be funded once grant funding runs out.

That use of funds is similar to what the district sometimes does, Pelland said. “Just like we’ve done with some of our reserves when we a grant expires — we’ll use reserves over a few years” to help soften the blow, Pelland said.

Some schools are applying the carryover to float the staff during low-enrollment years.

“You’ll see a number of schools applying carryover to help ease the pain of a temporary enrollment drop,” Pelland said. “They’re using it to help supplement staffing.”

“The real discussion is about how much a district should hold back and be sort of paternalistic” about funding, Stein added. If the district pushes most of the funds to the individual schools, it has less flexibility to advance district-wide goals on its own.

“I believe that schools can make their own decisions. But, when we do that, it also means we sacrifice the ability to collectively determine ‘we’re going to do this,’ because we’ve already given away our dollars,” Stein said.

tphippen@postindependent.com