Furlough days buy Cherry Creek School District time to delay layoffs

District looks to close gap with cuts, election for tax increase, bond

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Six unpaid days off for teachers and other staff in the coming school year will save the Cherry Creek School District $12 million, the district announced in a letter to the community.

That total won't erase the $60 million deficit that's projected over the next year, but it allows the district to avoid immediate layoffs, the letter from Superintendent Scott Siegfried says.

The hole in Cherry Creek's budget comes as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on Colorado's economy — the crisis forced state lawmakers this spring to consider cutting about $3.3 billion in spending over the next year or so, leaving less money for Colorado's school districts.

The Cherry Creek district's deficit also amassed because of “costs associated with the pandemic,” the letter says.

Of the six furlough days the district has scheduled for this school year, only three fall on days when students have class, resulting in three additional days off for students, according to the letter. The district will not offer day care on those days, which are Monday, Nov. 23, and Tuesday, Nov. 24 — both during Thanksgiving week — and Tuesday, Jan. 5, which will be the last day of winter break.

With the added furlough days in November, there will be no school the entire Thanksgiving week.

The district's board of education approved the furlough days at its July 20 meeting. The days affect teachers, administrators, nurses, and mental health and other staff.

Along with the furlough, the district also has identified a series of cuts totaling $14.3 million, according to a planning document for the board of education. Those cuts include a reduction in staff who work in central administration, elimination of in-person training for staff and all staff travel, and the implementation of strict energy-saving guidelines at all buildings.

So far, the district has eliminated about 40 positions in central administration for a savings of $3.7 million, according to district spokeswoman Abbe Smith. Positions have been eliminated through attrition — when staff retire or leave to pursue other opportunities — and combining of some positions, Smith said. The district has not asked anyone to retire or resign, she added.

Tax increase, bond measure

The district's board also will consider a November election to ask voters to raise taxes and approve a bond.

To use a bond is to issue a debt to investors that the district eventually will pay back with interest. School districts often use bonds for projects such as construction and building maintenance.

The election also would involve a mill levy — a property tax increase. Mill levies pay for salaries, programs and items related to classroom instruction.

The combined impact of the tax increase and bond for homeowners totals $1.65 per month for every $100,000 of home value, the letter says. The board will vote at its Aug. 3 meeting on whether to call for the election.

“The recommendation ultimately came from the (district's) Budget Task Force and Council of Chairs, two volunteer committees made up of parents, teachers, administrators, district staff, students and community members that have spent months meeting and discussing potential cuts and new sources of revenue,” Siegfried's letter says.

The tax increase, if approved, would raise $35 million to stave off some of the worst impacts of the budget deficit, the letter says. The $150 million bond would pay for the following needs:

• Major maintenance and upkeep on aging buildings and a possible new elementary school in the eastern part of the district to alleviate overcrowding ($88 million).

• Upgrading security in all schools, possibly including a new intercom system, push-button classroom door locks, camera upgrades and a new fire alarm system ($26 million).

• Creating “innovating learning” spaces in high schools ($9 million).

• A mental health treatment center. “The State of Colorado has historically underfunded support for mental health and in many cases reduced funding. It is critical we build our own facility to support students with the greatest needs as facilities outside the district are often not available to students,” a planning document for the board of education says. ($7 million).

• The rest of the $150 million would provide a “significant remodel to the cafeteria space” at Village East Elementary, expand programming options for students at the Cherry Creek Innovation career-technical education campus and upgrade technology regarding internet use in the district.

Even before the pandemic, the district was preparing to implement community recommendations for cutting costs, finding new sources of revenue and considering a bond and budget election in fall 2020, according to a district newsletter.

That's because for the first time in recent history, the district faced an expected decline in student enrollment, while costs increased associated with programs for mental health, special education, gifted and talented students, and other initiatives. Add to that what the district says was inadequate funding from the state, and it found itself projecting a $50 million budget deficit in the coming years even before the pandemic.

What layoffs could look like

It's unclear whom possible layoffs in the district would include.

Asked what staff positions and how many personnel the district anticipates having to cut, Smith, the spokeswoman, couldn't say for sure in late May. It's also unclear whether layoffs would affect more of the non-teaching workforce, such as bus drivers and custodians, compared with teachers and administrators.

“This is a speculative question,” Smith has said. “In a worst-case scenario ... we would have to consider significant cost-cutting measures, including a possible reduction in staff.”

In late July, Smith said: "We are not discussing layoffs at this point. We are having conversations with our community about what their priorities are around making budget cuts and finding new sources of revenue."

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