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Colo. Districts Face Deficits, Prospect of Deep Budget Cuts

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Faced with new limits on taxes and spending, several Colorado school districts are wrestling with record budget deficits and the prospect of deep cuts this year, school officials said last week.

Last month, the state's largest district, Jefferson County, announced that it will cut its top administrative staff by a third and close its central-office building.

Those measures are expected to save the district about $3 million of the estimated $30 million it must trim from its budget starting in July, said Kay Pride, a spokeswoman for the school system.

In addition, the neighboring Denver school district is anticipating a shortfall of close to $28 million this year.

Jefferson County, with 81,000 students, and Denver, with 63,000, are the state's largest school systems.

Sources attributed the budget troubles to the approval by state voters in November of Amendment 1, an initiative that curbed government spending and made it harder to raise taxes, and the defeat of Amendment 6, a proposed 1 cent increase in the state sales tax earmarked for schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 11, 1992.)

"We understand that people want a limit on spending,'' Ms. Pride said. "But this poses three kinds of constraints.''

While schools statewide will have to cut per-pupil spending by an average of 9 percent as a result of the new limits, Jefferson County has already cut 16 percent of its central-administration costs.

Last month, Superintendent Lew Finch announced that about 100 central-staff positions would be eliminated under a "crisis plan.''

Many of the 49 administrators affected by the first cuts could fill vacant principalships or could begin teaching, Ms. Pride said.

Six superintendents in the district will be reassigned, moving to offices in area schools under redefined positions, she added.

The district's $12 million school-administration building will be sold or leased, and a number of departments there--including the testing office and athletic department--will be abolished under the plan.

'Symbolic' Decisions

Further cuts will be decided after the district consults with school staff, parents, and other community leaders, Ms. Pride indicated.

The district has not ruled out future layoffs of some of its 10,000 full- and part-time employees.

"It was pretty obvious that some of these cuts were going to have to come from staff,'' said Jane Urschel, the president of the school board.

Ms. Urschel said the board fully supported the district's decisions.

The administrative reductions "are symbolic,'' she explained. "The perception is we're too top-heavy.''

Denver school officials expect to have a plan by March that will help close their deficit, according to a spokesman for the district.

"Collaborative-decisionmaking committees'' are being formed at all schools to give parents, teachers, and administrators a stake in determining how budget cuts will be made, the spokesman added.

The schools in mountainous Lake County, meanwhile, are considering a 15 percent spending cut this year, on top of a 15 percent reduction over the past three years, according to Superintendent James McCabe.

"Without legislative action,'' the superintendent added, the district "is only good until January 1994.''

"This is all spiraling down. Leadville [the district's only city] is just two years ahead of everyone else,'' he said. "We're all on our way down.''

Jennifer Grossman, the director of communications for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the budget pains are probably going to reverberate throughout the state.

"We feel its unfortunate that the public voted the way it did,'' she said. "But we also feel like boards are going to be making some tough decisions.''

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