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Roaring Fork Schools budget cuts hinge on allowed use of federal CARES funding

The Roaring Fork School District faces a $4.6 million budget deficit for the coming school year, but there’s a wild card in the mix that could change the hand somewhat for the better.

Recently, the district that oversees public schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt received $3.6 million in federal CARES Act funds passed down by the state.

The money is part of the $510 million doled out to K-12 schools across Colorado to cover the many unforeseen expenses associated with the COVID-19 response this spring and continuing into next school year.

However, there are some strings attached to that money that could limit its use, which is a matter for some ongoing interpretation by state education officials, said Nathan Markham, finance director for the Roaring Fork Schools.

The funds are intended to be used specifically for COVID-related expenses, and not to backfill budget shortfalls due to the state’s school finance cutbacks or other internal circumstances, Markham said.

The state cutbacks are related to the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic. But the relief funds may be restricted to costs directly associated with moving to an online instruction format and other programs that were implemented when schools were closed by order of Gov. Jared Polis in response to the virus outbreak.

Currently, the Roaring Fork Schools and districts across the state are working to finalize their 2020-21 budgets by the end of June.

“If it’s a broad interpretation, we could use all of those funds to help with the shortfall we are anticipating,” Markham said of the questions still before Colorado Department of Education. “If it comes back more narrow, we have to pull together all the ifs, ands and buts … to decide how to use that money.”

The funds also have to be spent by Dec. 30 of this year, which will make for some careful accounting, he said.

“If we use any of those funds improperly, we would have to refund that amount,” Markham said. “So, we have to be careful not to create a liability for ourselves down the line.”

What the district does know, after the state School Finance Bill was passed last weekend, is that it will be receiving $433 less per pupil for ’20-21 than it did this year — from $8,764 to $8,331.

That amounts to a drop in state funding for the district of $2.5 million, a 5% reduction. On top of that, the district anticipates about $2.1 million in other revenue decreases and increased expenses related to health insurance and the state employee retirement program, bringing the total deficit to $4.6 million.

To help balance the budget for the coming year, the district may also look to its roughly $10 million in reserves to make up that deficit, finance officials previously said.

The longer-term concern is what the state economic downturn will mean beyond the 2020-21 fiscal year. On the table for consideration for the Roaring Fork Schools are furlough days for all district staff, pay reductions and cuts in curriculum and individual school discretionary funds.

District officials have said they hope to avoid those types of deeper cuts for the coming year, but may very well need to keep them in the mix for the following school year. Those discussions are to involve broader community input and negotiations through district’s Interest-Based Bargaining Committee, Markham said.

The district also is in line to share with private schools in the area another $410,000 in separate CARES Act funds, which are more specific but can also be spread out until Sept. 30, 2022, Markham said.

A proposed 2020-21 budget is scheduled to be presented to the school board on June 24, with likely final approval at a special meeting on June 30.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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