THE $31 MILLION QUESTION: Aurora Public Schools grappling with money woes

“We should be looking at every other idea other than cutting teachers or cutting services to students because that’s what I want my three children to be able to experience.”

AURORA | For William Smith High School senior Daegan Macias, it’s not about the $31 million shortfall Aurora Public Schools is facing for the 2017-18 budget. Instead, it’s about the proposed $2.7 million APS is thinking of taking away from pilot and innovation schools, including William Smith HS, in an effort to curtail district spending.

HOW DID APS GET HERE?
For the last 10 years APS has had a 2.5 percent increase in student enrollment every year. Last year challenged this growth assumption with the 2016-17 student population declining by about 700 students, forcing the district to make small cuts here and there and to use $8.2 million from their fund balance, or what they call their “short-term savings account.” Essentially, this is the money leftover after the district has paid its bills.

The district is currently seeking long-term solutions through a “budget redesign” for what they believe is a trending decline in student population by developing a 2017-2018 general fund budget of approximately $319 million. This is a change from the 2016-17 budget of approximately $350 million, requiring them to reduce the budget by $31 million.

“We’re trying to make sure the community understands … we’ve had some fundamental shifts in the economics of the district that we have to redesign our system to address this,” said APS Superintendent Rico Munn.

APS, along with other state districts, is also expecting a decrease in state funding due to the “negative factor.” Per Great Education Colorado, in 2009, the Colorado legislature added a new “budget stabilization” or “negative factor” to the School Finance Act formula which has led to districts receiving per-pupil-funding every year that is less than what they actually need.

In addition, though voters approved a $300 million bond issue in November, those funds are a different pot of money from the general fund budget and don’t affect this shortfall.

POSSIBLE SCENARIOS
APS is weighing a long list of options for next year’s budget. Among them are cutting budgets for pilot and innovation schools; closing three high school swimming pools; eliminating full-day kindergarten; getting rid of sports in P-8, K-8 and middle schools; and getting rid of the International Baccalaureate Program.

These, among other ideas, have been laid out in four possible scenarios to give students, teachers and parents an idea of what’s to come. However, there are some proposed cuts that appear in each scenario, no matter what, such as across-the-board administrative cuts, renegotiating health benefits for staff, and reducing funding for pilot and innovation schools.

In addition, APS has already taken some steps to reduce the budget. The board recently approved the district calendar for next year and eliminated late-start Wednesdays, where students came to school about 2 hours later than they normally do while teachers and staff had professional development. According to Munn, there was “a significant cost to that.”

‘DIFFICULT CHOICES’
These proposed cuts have left some, including Mecias, concerned about the future of APS. The Aurora senior attended the last budget redesign town hall along with some William Smith peers and teachers to try to convince APS Superintendent Rico Munn that cutting the budgets of the district’s pilot and innovations schools wasn’t a good idea.

“We heard there was going to be this $2.7 million cut to pilot and innovation schools and we’re one of those. Meanwhile, there’s about a $30 million cut so that’s about a 10 percent cut from just those schools,” Mecias said. “Our school is good and anybody at William Smith will tell you about the great impact it’s had on their lives and how it helped them become a good person. So we don’t want to see our school lose anything else that makes it the amazing school it already is.”

Munn said the reason they are considering cutting the budgets of pilot and innovation schools is because they have received more money than other schools in the district.

“As we’ve gone through our budget process, we’ve realized those schools have for several years have gotten an increased allocation,” he said. “If we’re correct, those schools have received an allocation over and above what the community and what the board have directed they should receive and we need to think about how we need to adjust that to live by the rules we have established.”

Another concern raised by teachers and parents at the last budget redesign open house held Tuesday was changing full-day kindergarten to half-day, a budget cut that would save $4.9 million and appears in two of the scenarios. Some teachers were concerned this would mean students wouldn’t be adequately prepared for first grade or that English-language learners wouldn’t have enough instructional time.

“All of these choices have impacts, and we have to weigh those impacts,” Munn said. “The reality is we are one of the few metro area districts that offer full-day kindergarten and we recognize that is something that is an option we have chosen and the community has supported but it’s not something we necessarily have to do.”

Like most other parents, Steve Bonansinga, who has two seventh graders and one fourth grader that attend schools in APS, is primarily concerned with quality of instruction his kids receive.

“I see scenarios that have different ideas but I don’t see the ‘keep it away from the classroom scenario’. The job of Aurora Public Schools is to teach children … and that’s what we’re hoping and pay tax dollars for,” Bonansinga said. “We should be looking at every other idea other than cutting teachers or cutting services to students because that’s what I want my three children to be able to experience.”

Munn emphasized at the last town hall that there is a lot to consider as the district looks at these budget cuts, and it won’t be an easy process.

“You don’t take this job without loving kids, wanting to help design, build and move a system that helps kids have a successful future, that’s what I’m passionate about and that’s why I’m here,” Munn said. “These are difficult choices and we’re trying to engage the community, and part of that choice is between some difficult options.”