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Alpine School District approves $940 million budget amidst anticipated cuts to education

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The Alpine School District will see a reduced budget during the 2020-2021 fiscal year due to an anticipated dip in state funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The tentative budget, which was approved by the district’s board of education on June 16, includes about $940.83 million in expenditures and $830.81 million in revenue.

The vote came after multiple back-and-forth comments from board members on whether to approve a substitute motion that would reassign funding to provide a one-time bonus to teachers at the end of the next school year and give the opportunity for schools to transition instructional coaches back to the classroom in order to slightly reduce class sizes.

Sarah Beeson, a member of the board of education who voted for the substitute motion, said the motion, which passed 5-2, shows that the district is listening to teacher feedback stating that employees want to see smaller class sizes and increased compensation.

“We are not furloughing,” Beeson said. “We are not firing. We are asking them to temporarily go back into the classroom, and I think having one foot in the classroom and being a coach makes you an excellent coach because you have the ability to relate to the teachers that are struggling and you can share experiences.”

The motion included moving funding for instructional coaches who train teachers to transition into classroom teaching positions in order to reduce teacher-to-student ratios from 29 to 28.43 students per teacher for middle schools and from 27.5 to 27.14 students per teacher in high school. Also, the board approved cutting $2.5 million from the general fund and use $1.3 million of that cut to decrease fifth and sixth grade class ratios from 28.2 to 27.14 students per teacher, and to use $1.2 million from the cut for the one-time teacher bonus. 

The motion does not specify which items from the district’s general fund would be cut.

Board members Ada Wilson and Sara Hacken, who both voted against the substitute motion, voiced concerns that the motion came too late in the budget process and was too vague for them to support. 

Wilson said the change would surprise employees who have little time to prepare for the changes. She also questioned what the eventual impacts of the changes would be.

“I think it really does not make sense for us to try to reduce our class sizes on this scale in a budget reduction year and give teachers a bonus,” Hacken said during the meeting. “This does not make sense to me, that does not make sense to our public, and I don’t think it will make sense to our teachers. 

Wilson said district survey results found that 79% of the district’s teachers received coaching this year, an increase of 29% from the previous year. She said it’s difficult to reduce class sizes during good economic times, and that this year is a poor time to approach the issue, especially if it means reducing support for teachers. Wilson called the move an overreach that would be made without the recommendation of administrations, without data, and without feedback. 

“I really think that this is going to be chaotic and a major shift in the direction of our district, and I can’t support it,” she said. 

About 31.76% of the district’s funds come from local property taxes, 56.12% come from the state, 6.01% come from the federal government and 6.11% comes from other sources, such as investments. 

The district expects to see an increase of $26.99 million in revenue next year and expenditures of all funds are predicted to decrease by $165.62 million due to the completion of construction projects. 

The general fund will decrease expenditures by $14.47 million in response to the expected COVID-19 economic recession. Federal revenues are expected to increase by $4.06 million to the CARES Act, and local revenue is estimated to increase by $1.39 million. 

The budget is expected to be amended throughout the upcoming fiscal year as some state and federal funding remains unknown. 

Operations to the upcoming budget including a hiring freeze on two administrative positions, a reduction of 10% from all non-wage administration accounts, cutting administration travel and mileage accounts, and reducing the superintendent’s discretionary account. 

Further cuts from state and federal sources will have continued impacts on the budget, Rob Smith, an assistant superintendent for the district, told its board of education. 

Smith said the district has started with cutting non-instructional items, supplies, and travel. 

“That is the low-hanging fruit,” Smith said. “If we go much further, we are going to impact people, one way or another.”

Wilson noted that while reductions to class sizes have been one of the board’s top priorities, it is no longer her top one in the face of budget cuts. 

“I think we are more in a survival mode of preserving our visions and preserving people’s jobs, and I think that is a worthy goal, but I think it needs to take a backseat right now,” Wilson said. 

Scott Carlson, the board’s president, said that it’s difficult to create a budget without knowing the amount of funding the district will receive in wake of the pandemic. 

“It is not easy,” said Carlson, who wore a Skyridge High School-themed mask during the meeting. “It is not going to be painless. Every adjustment that we have to make will have an adverse impact in some way, on teachers and their support they receive to help make the job work, and that will make a difference in each school somewhere.”

Carlson said that while cuts will have impacts, it does not mean they are a personal attack or a sign of disrespect toward employees. 

In the sole public comment on the tentative budget, Wendy Hart, a former member of the district’s board of education, warned the district against potentially voting to raise property taxes in August. While on paper it may look like residents have money, Hart said that doesn’t translate to incomes as people lose jobs or have seen their business decrease. 

She suggested reallocating funds traditionally used for sabbaticals, purchasing gift cards, and renting digital displays, and applauded the decision to cut the district’s travel budget. 

“I would highly recommend that you do that going forward,” Hart said.

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