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Salida School District holds two listening sessions focused on their budgeting process

Ark Valley Voice sat in on the first Salida School District listening session on Tuesday, Feb 6. In attendance were School Board members Mandy Paschall and Jenn Schuchman, Superintendent David Blackburn, Assistant Superintendent Will Woodell, and Business Manager Aaron Dobson. CMC’s Rob Simpson rounded out the group, together with a sole district resident Dale Smith.

While a busy restaurant made focused listening challenging, the opportunity for one-on-one with key district leaders was a great start to a hoped-for, larger process.

Image courtesy of Salida School District.

Teacher pay and effects of high housing costs on retention rate

After introductions, Dale Smith led off, expressing concerns about teacher pay, saying that a single person’s income cannot support Salida’s high cost of housing. He said that good teachers who are passionate about teaching here are at risk of having to leave for the higher pay of the Front Range. “There’s no future here for them if there’s no hope of a home,” said Smith.

The group shared the concern but Blackburn noted that teacher base pay had been purposely increased 31 percent over the last seven years.  He added that even if teacher pay doubled, a single teacher could not afford an average $650,000 area home mortgage. Paschall made a plea for newer, younger teachers to engage with the collaborative bargaining team (CBT) and make their concerns known.

Blackburn also highlighted a key issue at the state level. In 2025, he said there will be about 500,000 teacher vacancies in Colorado and only 100,000 teachers graduating into the profession. That, coupled with a complex (and relatively meager) Colorado per-pupil funding model does not bode well for our state’s education future without major revamping.

Smith closed with a question about what percentage of salaries are allocated to “administration” vs. certified teachers, support staff and others, asking for comparable benchmarks. Dobson supplied additional details to Smith and Ark Valley Voice, the next day.

“Apples to Apples” comparisons are challenging

Aaron Dobson Business Manager Salida Schools. Courtesy image.

All the current and historical district salary schedules are here. There are multiple schedules and definitions for each. “I wanted to get clear on exactly what ‘administration’ means [to Smith’s question] because that can be a broad term. Some people think of that as being leadership roles, but others think that any administrative position such as secretaries and payroll are also included in that, responded Dobson.

Getting the big picture is not easy. The Administrator/Manager schedule is an example, but one needs to look at others like Special Services Provider (Nurse Counselor, Therapist — the district has several) and see how that compares with Certified (Teachers).

Dobson continued, saying, “The best way to compare our district to other districts in terms of expenditures is to compare salary schedules and then also compare the Uniform Budget Summary, which can be found here. This is not always perfect, but it’s very helpful because it takes the way that the state requires all districts to code their expenditures and puts it in a form that every district has to post.”

“So for example, you could pull up any district in Colorado and look at their budget summary and compare it with ours and get a pretty close picture of the breakdown between districts,” he concluded.

Communications/School Board Secretary Kim LeTourneau later provided links for interested residents including Financial Transparency pages that provide additional budget detail for the district. “The main page also has links to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) guidelines about what information must be shared with taxpayers and the community,” she said.

In addition, the 2023 Report to the Community was recently mailed to all residents of the district. Pages nine and ten have helpful visuals on spending trends by major categories.

Initial input sought on Strategic Plan’s just-launched survey

As previously reported in Ark Valley Voice, the District is facing a changing financial picture, Unassigned fund balances (a planned “rainy day” fund), which had been previously used to cover shortfalls of revenue over expenses are no longer a viable funding source.

QR code links to Salida School District Strategic Plan and public feedback survey

Salida School District has been working on creating a Strategic Financial Plan, with a goal of defining financial assumptions and guiding principles. The draft plan includes principles that can be used to assess and prioritize needs going forward within the Salida School District.

The survey link here is also found in the QR code in this news piece. It seeks initial input on the four-page draft financial plan and also offers a video walk-through of the plan by Aaron Dobson. Locals are encouraged to read the plan or watch the video then take the survey to provide initial feedback.

Next steps

While the second listening session may have attracted more residents and gathered some anecdotal feedback on district budget priorities, more hard data is needed. The six-step process outlined in the financial plan outlines the sequence of how a good budget begins and then works its way through the trade-offs and prioritization of fixed resources.

According to the timeline, capital wish lists are being prepared by departments now, followed by operational wishes in March. An initial budget will be presented to the Board of Education in April, with community and stakeholder input requested in May.

The budget “pie” is often only so big, so the size of individual slices may vary. Image courtesy pexels and polina-tankilevitch

Given that the budget is nearly fully “baked” by May of the calendar year, it would seem that intensive community outreach and more structured listening sessions would be helpful way before then. In-person exercises such as asking stakeholders to place “Post-It’ notes on priority items is a tried and true local tool.

For broader reach, a follow-up online survey asking respondents to allocate $1,000 to a variety of slices of the financial “pie”, plus free-text responses to probing questions may be effective at getting to budget tradeoffs and not relying heavily on department-driven wishes.

In this way, stakeholder engagement can truly shape the budget based on expressed taxpayer priorities, especially regarding capital spending vs. operations. As with municipal governments, the trend today is to align resources with strategic priorities in a collaborative process, instead of traditional ways of allocating funds based on historical spending patterns and inflationary models.

Ark Valley Voice will continue to bring readers updates on the budget process as information is provided by the district.