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While much of Elbert County unpacks their swimsuits and rubs aloe vera over their post-spring break sunburn, Elizabeth School District administration searches for clever ways to construct the 2018-19 school budget.
The district has a tight budget, far below that in nearby counties, but attempts to disburse funds in the best possible direction based on community input and first-hand investigation.
One of the main troubles that Superintendent Douglas Bissonette wants to address is the low teacher salaries in Elizabeth. The district has difficulty attracting and retaining high-caliber teachers because of this. Exit surveys from Elizabeth and new contracts from other districts show that teachers are getting an average of 26 percent more when they work elsewhere, and 77 percent more if they teach for Boulder or Cherry Creek.
“That's a huge gap,” Bissonette said. “We know talented teachers are interested in working in Elizabeth. The challenge is that our pay is at the bottom 10 percent for teacher salaries in the state.”
Ron Patera, director of finance for the schools, has been touring facilities and detailing input. He said that reducing staff turnover is “an annual challenge” since about 80 percent of the operating budget already goes to salary and benefits.
So on top of regular funding, the district relies heavily on grants, donations and partnerships. Over the last three years, almost $2 million in state grants have gone toward roofing replacement and repairs and a water treatment system which should be finished by August; other grants have gone toward literacy support and the elementary gifted and talented program. Individual teachers also apply for grants to better the students' learning, and often receive between $500 to $1,000 each from organizations like the Elizabeth Education Foundation.
Looking toward the future, with an extensive list of major and minor projects that need to be taken care of, the district hired a firm to put together a Facility Master Plan, which utilizes community input.
Contrary to what some taxpayers might believe, a hearty economy and higher property tax do not always result in bigger school budgets. The state allows a base dollar amount for each student across Colorado, then adjusts that amount based on factors like the number of students signed up for free or reduced-price lunches, the cost of living and the size of the district.
Also, many of the neighboring districts receive a mill levy to bolster operations, but Elizabeth voters have not approved the override. The 2017-18 school year saw the first 33 percent of funding from local sources (like property taxes and vehicle registration); the state supplied the other 67 percent to reach the base amount per student, plus their specific factors.
“The main dynamic is we don't have much control over our revenue, because of the demographics of the students in our district.” Bissonette said, noting the low number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches. “The revenue is fairly fixed and our job is to allocate it.”
The problem worsens with a decreasing student population.
“There has been a steady decline in student enrollment over the past seven years, which has created an even greater challenge to commit more funds to salaries and benefits,” Patera said.
For example, the state gives the district about $7,500 per student, so when 30 students leave, Elizabeth loses $225,000.
Keeping in mind the most recent school shooting in Florida, the district is continuing its effort to provide mental health support, and better safety. The high school is in the process of getting a visitor management system, and the elementary schools use the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) approach, which schedules a background-checked dad to patrol the grounds.
Bissonette said another challenge is balancing funds between the needs of students and facilities — buildings versus people. The wish list includes major improvements, like construction and welding classes for high schoolers, and minor needs, like microphones that don't squeal during musicals. Instituting classes such as welding could give students an alternate career path, but the requirements include specialized teachers, a workspace and equipment.
The administration wants students to have access to a wide variety of both in-school and extracurricular activities. For middle schoolers, Bissonette hopes to see more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) classes, and more funding for the elementary level gifted and talented program.
“At the beginning of this year, we took students to view eclipse firsthand. It was fascinating, and an amazing experience for the kids.” Bissonette said. “Those are the kinds of things we'd like to more universally be able to provide for gifted and talented students.”
Despite not having a mill levy override, Bissonette applauds the community for its generosity by saying, “We couldn't do what we do without their support.”
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