Several articles have appeared recently in the Park County Republican and Fairplay Flume supporting higher pay raises for the teachers of Park County School District RE-2. The Sept. 6 edition of The Flume has an article, “RE-2 the teachers and the district – an opinion,” by Skip Kunst. He cited a graph produced by the teachers to demonstrate that “district reserves have increased from $1.5 million to $3.9 million since 2011.” The Aug. 9 edition of The Flume has a press release, “Conflicting accounts emerge regarding teachers’ salaries in Park County School District RE-2,” by the Colorado Education Association. It stated that this $3.9 million represents a “stockpile of 72 percent” in district reserves. The articles attempt to show that there is plenty of money for higher pay raises.
In this same Aug. 9 article, a different picture was painted in the “PCSD RE-2 Press Release” by Kim H. Bundgaard, the president of the school district board of directors. She claimed that the money available in the budget is not enough for sustainable raises “without cutting other benefits or engaging in deficit spending to meet ongoing demands.” This implies that the larger raise the teachers want may be unsustainable. Who should the community believe?
The idea that 72 percent of the district funds are in reserve is difficult to comprehend. It would mean that all the district’s operational costs for the year can be paid for with only 28 percent of the money in the budget. This does not seem possible. There is plenty of evidence to show that, year after year, the district has been operating with a shortage of funds and unable to achieve many of its goals, much less fund a reserve to that extravagant level.
For example, for decades the district wanted to build a competitive track to host regional track meets but lacked the money. The track was completed in 2016, but not due to any funding from the district. According to Becky Minnis, superintendent of PCSD RE-2 from 2010-17, the goal came to fruition only because the Colorado Department of Education, Capital Construction Office, refunded some grant money withheld from the school district.
Since 2010, the district has lacked the money to restart the much needed vocational/technical program that was lost when the old schools were torn down. Even though the program could attract more students and boost revenues from the state due to an increased enrollment, the district cannot afford it.
As a former chairman of the South Park Schools Foundation, I assisted in establishing it after the new schools were built to help the district meet monetary needs. The foundation does fundraisers to donate money to teachers for badly needed classroom supplies that the school district cannot afford. The foundation has had a goal to build a high school baseball field. Money for this project has been raised by the foundation. It has not come from the district.
According to Minnis, she accepted only 50 percent of the superintendent pay offered to her by the district in order to help the district meet its financial obligations and to save teacher jobs during her tenure.
According to Kathy Jankiewicz, co-chair of the District Accountability Committee and a member of the District Budget Committee from 2010-15, the district was deficit spending and borrowing money during those years. The interest on loans cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars. Jankiewicz’s recollections were confirmed by Minnis, who established the budget committee during that austere time to find ways to keep teacher jobs and keep the district running.
One would not expect any of this to occur in a district that could afford to put an excessive amount of money in reserve. In reality, the district does desire to maintain a reserve balance higher than the 3 percent mandated by state law. One of the objectives of the district’s Strategic Plan found on the district’s website states, “Build reserve balance by increasing capital and contingency reserves.” The “Implementation Benchmark” states, “Jan 2019 Allocate funds to meet 7 percent reserve balance as per board policy.”
If the district is striving to maintain a 7 percent reserve, how does the CEA come up with a “72 percent reserve?” The disparity is astonishing. Is the CEA calling the end balance at the close of a budget cycle a reserve? This money is actually carried over and integrated into the new budget to fund future district operations and minimize the need for deficit spending and borrowing. What has changed to cause the difference in calculations? Have the county and state changed their school funding formulas? Have district expenses gone down? The assertion that the reserve is at 72 percent challenges the knowledge of some people in the community regarding the district’s history and financial struggles.
The district has the responsibility to pay its hardworking teachers a wage that defrays the cost of living. The teachers have the responsibility to ensure that their demands do not jeopardize the sound financial footing of the district. To do this, both parties should work toward a common understanding of the budget to come up with the same set of figures. If both sides can do this and are mindful of their responsibilities, the children will be the winners and the solution will be satisfactory to all.
(Bud Jankiewicz is a former member, board of directors,6 years; teacher, six years and dean of students, two years.
He was cochair, District Facilities Committee, and cochair, Bond Election Campaign Committee that acquired the funds to construct the school buildings in Fairplay and Lake George, and former chairman, South Park Schools Foundation.)