Littleton schools face millions in budget cuts

Too soon to say how shortfalls related to pandemic will impact district

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/30/20

Littleton Public Schools is facing deep budget cuts in coming years as the impact of COVID-19 comes to bear. The district, which serves close to 15,000 students, is facing reduced funding from the …

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Littleton schools face millions in budget cuts

Too soon to say how shortfalls related to pandemic will impact district

Posted

Littleton Public Schools is facing deep budget cuts in coming years as the impact of COVID-19 comes to bear.

The district, which serves close to 15,000 students, is facing reduced funding from the state of $9.1 million in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the district’s 2020-2021 budget. The Colorado legislature approved $3.3 billion in statewide cuts in May as coronavirus wreaked havoc on state tax revenue collection.

The cuts will be offset by $6.6 million in one-time federal funds earmarked for coronavirus-related expenses like complying with state and local health orders, planning and implementing remote learning options and purchasing sanitation supplies.

The district’s total general fund budget, approved at the June 25 school board meeting, is $177.8 million.

The gap between the state cuts and the federal funds will be exacerbated by a further $4.2 million in cuts already approved by the board last fall, caused by rising costs and stagnant state funding. All told, the district anticipates a revenue loss of close to $7 million in the coming school year.

The cuts approved last fall led the district to eliminate 17 staff positions, through a combination of layoffs, unfilled vacancies and retiring staff who won’t be replaced. Other measures included pay cuts for administrators, furlough days, and increasing student fees.

It’s still too soon to say how the new cuts will impact the district.

“My expectation is school will look different (this fall) than it’s ever looked,” board member Robert Reichardt said at a June 15 budget workshop.

“It might be that 5-15% of kids won’t come back to school, and we’ll be instructing them remotely. That has implications for where our resources and even coaches go. ... I’m not sure we can make decisions until we understand new demands on our system.”

Many unknowns remain: the cost to restart school in the fall, how many students will return for in-person classes versus remote learning, whether Congress will approve further federal funding for school districts, whether schools will be closed again by a second wave of the virus, and the impact of various statewide ballot issues that could go before voters this fall.

Of particular interest to board members is Initiative 271, also called Fair Tax Colorado, whose backers are gathering signatures to put it on the November ballot. It would create a graduated income tax structure that proponents say could provide a big boost for state education funding.

Other impacts could come from a proposed statewide repeal of the Gallagher Amendment, which could prevent further cuts to residential property tax rates, and a possible increased tax on tobacco products.

Even if all the ballot measures passed in favor of public education funding, the district would still likely not be where it wants, said chief finance officer Diane Doney at the June 15 meeting.

“We don’t have a clear savior out there,” Doney said.

State education funding has fallen short since the Great Recession a decade ago, resulting in a shortfall for Littleton schools now pushing $160 million.

The school board is weighing asking voters for a mill levy increase this fall, but board members acknowledge the uncertainty of the district’s needs and the murky picture regarding state ballot measures could make such a measure a hard sell.

“The ballot’s going to be incredibly crowded in the fall, and there’ll be a lot of countervailing arguments and measures,” said school board president Jack Reutzel at the June 15 meeting. “We’re rolling off a lot of folks being furloughed.”

District voters approved a $298 million bond for school construction and upgrades in 2018.

District officials already began gauging public sentiment toward a mill levy increase early this year, before COVID-19 changed the picture. Now, the measure faces an additional hurdle: How to sell it to voters, considering how the money will be used depends on how concurrent state measures shake out?

Further complicating things: district officials and school board members typically embark on speaking tours to build support for ballot measures, though this year such meetings are off the table.

The district still holds roughly $10 million in reserves, and board members discussed the possibility of drawing from that fund. The board pulled $1 million out of reserves last fall to offset the impact of other cuts.

Board member Lindley McCrary said it’s important the board stay cautious about drawing from reserves.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” McCrary said at the June 15 meeting. “We’re staying very conservative in how we’re spending our money.”

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