Aurora area schools facing ‘catastrophic’ budget cuts, officials say

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Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | “Catastrophic” budget shortfalls and inevitable cuts are headed down the pike for Aurora area schools, and officials are warning the public to expect collateral damage.

The smoke has cleared after months of economic uncertainty for school district officials tasked with pulling together a budget for the forthcoming school year, revealing grim and challenging financial realities for the Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools. 

The situation is most dire for the 55,000-student Cherry Creek School District, which covers much of south Aurora and other municipalities. 

Cherry Creek district brass are expecting to see cuts — described on the school system website as “catastrophic”—  of nearly $68 million over two years. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district accounted for spending more than $654 million from its general fund and other revenue sources while transferring reserve dollars. 

That size of shortfall budget is threatening jobs, programs and higher salaries for teachers coveted throughout the state. 

Superintendent Scott Siegfried said in a letter to the community Tuesday that a “$60 million budget deficit will require more sacrifice and more cuts than we saw with the Great Recession.”

Officials say it’s unclear how money allotted to the Aurora school districts by Congress as part of a pandemic relief package can help backfill budget shortages. In addition, school districts are looking at huge needs for cash to accommodate an upcoming school year saddled with social distancing mandates.

Siegfried said the district school board may have to ask residents for a tax increase in the fall to stave off a worst-case scenario. 

Aurora Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Brett Johnson said Tuesday night that the district is in a decent position to weather at least the next two years of a pandemic-induced recession.

But he said APS could still face an up to $30 million shortfall, depending on the availability of federal funding. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district budgeted $530 million for its total operating funds. 

Siegfried and Johnson made it clear the source of both CCSD and APS budget woes is a statewide revenue shortage brought on by the pandemic, now rippling through school systems. 

Education dollars from the state legislature were the largest source of both APS’ and Cherry Creek’s budget last school year.

The Cherry Creek general fund budgeted for $340 million from state government last year — more than half its total revenue for this year. APS budgeted for about $285 million from state contributions, which rely heavily on anticipated sales taxes and other taxes that the pandemic quickly reduced. 

But this month, state lawmakers approved a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that cut $3.3 billion from the $13 billion general fund. The budget cuts K-12 funding by $621 million, the Associated Press reported. 

The cuts will rid Cherry Creek schools of $28 million in state funding for the coming school year, or 5.6 percent of the total state contribution. For the 2021-2022 school year, the district is expecting an additional $40 million loss from the state. Together, the lost revenue requires reductions in excess of $60 million over two years, the district says on a web page. 

APS is losing about $25 million from the state this year. 

There’s some hope both districts might also see relief with federal CARES Act funds both systems have already received. Cherry Creek took in $28 million, and APS received $26.8 million. 

But it’s unclear whether districts can actually spend those dollars toward reducing big deficits. The dollars come with lots of strings attached. 

Johnson said APS needs more clarity before it can account for the money. But he’s hoping the federal assistance could help APS drop a budget deficit toward zero. 

At any rate, the budget woes won’t derail a long-awaited measure to boost teacher salaries in APS. The Aurora Education Association teacher union recently signed off on a sweeping salary schedule overhaul in which the district would invest about $7 million more into teacher salaries and stipends each year for the foreseeable future.

The APS school board is poised to approve the deal next week. 

But in Cherry Creek, Siegfried told the Sentinel in May he expected “depression-level” cuts constraining schools’ capacities at a time when schools will be asked to do more than ever. 

Aurora students will likely be back in physical classrooms to some degree in August, requiring a massive operation on the part of school staff to transport, disinfect, feed and teach students while enabling access to tech needed for learning at home and mental health supports. 

Siegfried says all staff will take a salary freeze starting July 1 and could have their salaries cut next year. It’s likely staff will also have to take furlough days next year, he said.

As a result, “Class sizes would be increased and programs will be eliminated or drastically cut,” Siegfried said in his letter. “The Cherry Creek School District will not resemble the district we have known for 70 years.” 

The average Cherry Creek teacher earned the highest annual salary in the state during the 2019-2020 school year at $76,211. The average teacher salary in the state was $57,746. 

To stave off a worst-case scenario, Siegfried wrote that he’s considering asking the district school board to ask voters living in the district for a tax increase in the fall. 

An owner of a $404,000 home in the district paid near $1,300 in property taxes last school year, according to a budget document. 

The district had already enacting a staff hiring freeze this year because of budget challenges. 

Over the summer, Cherry Creek district committees will be meeting to mull paths forward. Residents might receive a survey to give feedback on potential cuts. 

Editor’s note: This story updated an editing error describing the total school district spending during the 2019-2020 school year. CCSD accounted for spending more than $654 million from its general fund and other revenue sources while transferring reserves. APS budgeted $530 million for its total operating funds.