Students at Highlands Ranch High School can expect fewer field trips next year and less school supplies to go around.
At Castle View High School in Castle Rock, students will no longer take as many classes as they want because there will be fewer teachers to teach them.
The two schools are among many in the Douglas County School District that are trying to figure out how to do the same with less.
“We all have had some impact,” said Castle View Principal Rex Corr, who met recently with parents to discuss the changes and make plans for the fall. “We operate on the fiscal realities that the state and the district pass down to us every year.”
Those fiscal realities this year include flat state funding, lower enrollments at the elementary school level and changes to how district budgets are calculated. And that means schools are thinking more strategically about planning for the 2017-18 school year.
“The reality for all of our schools is that we are tighter in Douglas County right now,” said Cory Wise, director of high schools.
Highlands Ranch High School
For Highlands Ranch High School, tightening the belt means less money for department budgets and extras like field trips.
“What we chose here at Highlands Ranch High School was people over programs,” Principal Chris Page said. “That meant instead of putting $5,000 into 15 different departments, we combined all of that money and ensured that we have enough to take care of the people aspect.”
That means the school will be able to retain all of its current staff and won't have to make any changes to curriculum or offerings to students, Page said.
However, when parents saw zero dollars in the budget for new expenditures at a recent School Accountability Meeting, many voiced concern, he said.
“The zero may freak some people out, but the truth of the matter is that we're strategically planning,” Page said. “It may mean there isn't as much paper to go around for copies, but it doesn't mean that we're not going to be able to function. We're not shutting doors or anything like that.”
Castle View High School
At Castle View High School, Corr said the school has had to make adjustments because it can no longer count on one-time-use highly impacted money.
Each year, schools can apply to the district for "highly impacted" dollars to supplement site-based budgets. These funds are budgeted annually and awarded as one-time money to support schools that can demonstrate significant needs or special circumstances to warrant supplemental funding — $2.4 million is available to be spread across the district.
Castle View has received funding from this source over the past several years.
The school's model is unique in the district. Students choose tracks in one of four academies—Leadership, Global Studies and Communication; Science, Technology, Math and Engineering; Visual and Performing Arts; and Biotechnology and Health Sciences— and have more freedom when choosing elective classes. They have traditionally been able to complete eight courses a year, more than any other high school in the district, because of its unique 4x4 block schedule, which allows students to complete four classes per semester because they attend those classes every day for extended periods.
But students will now have caps of eight classes freshman year, seven classes sophomore and junior years and six classes as seniors.
Douglas County high school students need a minimum of 24 credits to graduate.
“We decided that it was not sustainable moving forward,” Corr said of the school's unique programming. "Castle View had the luxury of that money being available each year in the past, but we can't count on it every year."
Revenue, distribution and projections
State funding through per-pupil revenue is expected to stay flat or increase only slightly for the 2017-18 school year. The per-pupil funding for the 2016-17 school year is $7,163.
For 2016-17, DCSD's enrollment is 67,470, up from 66,896 in 2015-16, according to the Colorado Department of Education. However, district officials say some elementary schools are experiencing declining enrollments, which subsequently means less money.
The district has projected the following schools will be under-utilized in the 2017-18 school year: Pine Lane Elementary, Mountain View Primary and Ponderosa High School in Parker; Arrowwood Elementary in Highlands Ranch; Larkspur Elementary; and Mesa Middle School in Castle Rock.
Other schools projected to be under-utilized by the 2021-22 school year are: Northeast Intermediate and Sierra Middle School in Parker, Trailblazer Elementary in Highlands Ranchand Castle Rock Middle School.
In addition, a change made by the school district in how money is distributed among its schools will see more money available for elementary schools, but less for middle and high schools.
In the past, all schools paid the same average amount for a teacher, calculated using his or her salary, plus benefits and retirement contributions. Now, rather than using the districtwide average, that amount will be differentiated among the elementary, middle schools and high schools.
Because elementary teachers cost the district less, those schools would be able to hire more people with the same amount of money, district officials said. Middle school and high school teachers, however, are more expensive to hire.
Each school in the district sets its own budget based on the funds that are available each year.
What lies ahead?
The district continues to look for more money for school programs and increases in teacher pay, DCSD spokesman Randy Barber said.
“We're waiting to see what the state budget is in a few weeks and hoping we can meet more needs at the school level,” Barber said.
However, concerns about money are unlikely to dissipate.
“We have buildings that need help in terms of capital investment," Barber said. "We have programs we want to make sure stay strong for students. And, we know that there's growth on the horizon, and we want to make sure we're prepared for that.”
The Douglas County community rejected a $200 million bond issue in 2011 that would have gone toward building three new schools in Castle Rock and Parker and a $29 million mill levy override that would have provided funding for instructional expenses and pay-for-performance for teachers.
In 2008, voters defeated a $395 million bond issue and a $17 million mill levy override to support building new schools, improving student achievement, recruiting and retaining the workforce and improving the district's technological advances in the face of expanded enrollment.
District officials and school board members have broached the subject of a new tax request in recent months with the timeline gravitating toward a 2018 ballot measure.
Said Wise: “We need to engage our Douglas County community with the financial challenges of the school district and the value of a quality school district.”