Community leaders are engaging towns, the county and the school district to share in the risk of keeping the Fraser Valley Elementary School and the Grand Lake Elementary School open for another year.
Near the conclusion of a four-hour East Grand Board of Education meeting on Feb. 1, after the break, the East Grand School Board gave direction to Fraser Valley community representatives Ron Nelson and David Michel to investigate the possibility of a sales-tax increase tailored to supporting community schools.
A 1 percent sales tax administered county-wide could generate as much as $3 million a year for schools, more than covering the projected 2011-2012 budget shortfall, according to a PowerPoint presentation by Michel, Winter Park Resort President and COO Gary DeFrange, and Fraser Valley Metropolitan Recreation District Director Scott Ledin.
But keeping the schools open could involve a shared risk with the district. The school board was asked if it would be willing to commit $500,000 of its own reserves to buy the time needed to pursue a more permanent funding solution. With that incentive, community members could then work to raise another $500,000 to meet the total budget shortfall. The time gained would allow a sales-tax ballot question in November and would let students remain in their schools the full year, even if the ballot measure were to fail.
"If the district is willing to risk its reserves, the community could come up with some back-up as well," Nelson said.
"Great things never happen without people taking risks," Michel said.
Not so fast
But one Granby parent wasn't sure such a risk would be worth taking.
"Being a part of this community, I would not want my child's education put at risk by using the reserves," said Stacey Parker. "I think the sales tax is wonderful, and I would love for that to happen, but I also think the district's future relies on financial responsibility."
Another parent saw it differently. Lisa Simpson of Grand Lake viewed the possibility of a sales tax as real hope for the district's financial well-being. Because of the reality of ongoing state cuts to education funding, there is no guarantee the district's reserves wouldn't be depleted anyway, she said.
A sustainable funding source might serve to improve educational programs for all students in the district and protect athletics, electives and other programs.
School board members are refraining from making any decision until a proposal from the community is more concrete, with more details scheduled to be presented to the board at a Feb. 15 district meeting.
Board members anticipate answers about where the matching $500,000 could come from, how much of a sales tax percentage increase would be considered, and how that money could be funneled to the district in a legal manner.
There is also the question of whether any sales tax increase could be directed to just the towns of Fraser, Winter Park and Grand Lake, making such a ballot measure more "passable."
At the Grand County commissioners' board meeting on Tuesday, commissioners directed the county attorney to investigate options on how sales tax money could be directed to the school districts, both East Grand and West Grand.
If a county-wide sales tax were approved by voters, a percentage could be funneled to the West Grand School District to help with its projected $250,000 budget shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year.
By the end of the district meeting, East Grand School Board President Tom Sifers said he was nowhere near the comfort level needed to make a decision to commit district reserves.
But School Board member Barbara Ahrens, who represents Grand Lake, seemed more than willing to explore the idea.
"In addition to making a decision that is the best decision for the kids, we also need to look at sustainability," said Ahrens. "I believe we need to look at the next year and the next year. It's not going to get better for awhile."
The sales tax option seemed to be the most feasible and expeditious out of a list of options the DeFrange group presented to the school board, according to District Superintendent Nancy Karas.
Other options included a voter-approved mill levy increase, which the community group did not recommend because it failed to meet the budget shortfall.
Redistricting by creating a special improvement district that included both Fraser and Grand Lake, or creating charter schools, were also on the list. Neither of those options could be explored and implemented in time to meet the immediate needs of the district, Karas told community leaders.
How we got here
During the first-third of the meeting, Karas showed a PowerPoint presentation about district finances, outlining in detail how the district had come to the point of needing to close down schools.
Part of the presentation included the long list of cuts that have been made leading up to this year. (To view the full presentation, go to the East Grand School District's website, www.egsd.org).
"I can't prepare children for the 21st century if they don't have a well-rounded education that includes technology, the arts and all those things we value in the United States and value for the children," Karas said.
"If this is what it takes to ensure that our children have a solid education, then I believe the adults in this community will rise up and find funding," she added. "But if they can't, then I also know this community will step up and make sure their children have what they need. And it may be in a different location for awhile."
Closing the Fraser Valley Elementary and Grand Lake Elementary schools is listed as a top recommendation on how to cut $1.1 million from the district budget, according to a District Accountability budget subcommittee report.
But community members from the Fraser Valley and Grand Lake fear the negative ramifications from closing community schools could amount to more than what the district saves. Studies were cited about how property-value decreases can result from school closures, in turn impacting revenues in other taxing entities, such as recreation districts.
Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke presented to the board a recent petition that includes 163 signed names of citizens and business owners willing to support a sales tax increase "as long as it's for education."
"We all know we're heading for a train wreck," Burke said. "It's not just this district. All 177 districts in this state are heading down the same path. Our state is not funding education properly."
Representing the faculty of the East Grand Middle School, one teacher shared a letter, signed by faculty members, in support of the option to close down the elementary schools. Among reasons cited in the letter were the will to preserve electives and programs, and the limited "affect on teachers and class sizes."
The option to close the elementary schools entails the fewest district lay-offs, according to the accountability committee's recommendations.
Some audience members said they were disturbed that the letter did not include the opinions of Grand Lake and Fraser faculty.
"It doesn't matter what building we're in or what changes," said high school teacher and president of the East Grand Education Association Christine DuBois-Miller, "because we have a passion to educate your children and we're going to keep that passion, no matter where we are put to do that job.
"And when we look at community," she continued, "is it our neighborhood? Is it our block? Is it the town we live in? Or, are we part of the county that can be a bigger community? It all matters on how we want to look at that."