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D-11 Administration Scrambles to Mend Fences

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Financially strapped District 11 is scrambling to change voter perception that the administration's and the community's priorities are misaligned.

With the need to cut $5 million from next year's operating budget, the administration is conducting a blitz of community surveys and public forums to solicit public input about where to trim.

The administration is finding that it does, indeed, have fences to mend with a public that two months ago rejected their plan to freeze the mill levy. The district -- supported by the teachers' union -- wanted to spend the bulk of the proceeds on computers and related technology. But many parents and some educators believe the emphasis in Colorado Springs' largest school district needs to be on reducing class size and on basic needs.

Most of the speakers at an administration-sponsored public forum at Coronado High Tuesday evening called for cutbacks in the central administration.

Zachary Frank, a junior at Palmer High School, provoked lively applause in denouncing what he said was an increase of 170 administrators in D-11 in the past five years.

"Instead of raising activity fees or cutting student programs," he said, "cut the number of administrators. That's the primary problem in District 11. It's why the mill-levy override was rejected. Each time you get more operating funds, you add administrators. We need to cut administrators, not student programs."


Miles away

D-11 parent Nancy Henjum also elicited lively applause. She warned that "any further request for operating funds had better be directly related to lowering class sizes, attracting and keeping quality teachers, and improving classroom instruction instead of on a bewildering array of pet administration projects that seem miles from the classroom."

Superintendent Kenneth Burnley told the audience the first objective in the coming cuts will be to "reduce overhead" by looking at administrative costs, but he denied that the district is "administratively bloated." The district, he said, spends 8.3 percent of its operating budget on administration, less than the statewide average of 9.5 percent.

If voters had not defeated last November's property-tax measure the district would have generated $10 million in operating revenues for the 2000-01 school year and eventually up to $22 million annually.

But election post-mortems revealed a fundamental disparity of priorities between the district administration and the community at large.

The D-11 community wanted smaller classes, increased safety and more emphasis on back-to-basics instruction, while the D-11 administration earmarked 70 percent of first-year increased revenues for the massive D-11 computer infrastructure, and only 2 percent in the first year for reducing class sizes, and that solely in elementary schools.

Voters perceived money was to be lavished on a technology program that wasn't tailored to basic educational needs

Despite district warnings that failure to pass the measure could mean program cutbacks, school closures, larger classes, salary freezes and reduced busing services, voters nixed it by a solid 60 percent.


No confidence

Complicating matters is ongoing friction between the administration and teachers.

The D-11 teachers' union leveled a no-confidence vote against Burnley in 1991 when he froze teacher salaries for three years while accepting bonuses for himself.

Citing seriously diminished resources and the current budget crunch, the administration recently announced that one-third of the 123 teachers hoping to retire this year will have to forego upward of $40,000 in incentive pay and accumulated sick leave to do so.

A contract between the district and the state teachers' union puts a cap of 29 on the number of retirees getting full incentive and sick leave, but the district fully funded all 165 retirements last year, and all 65 the year before that.

District spokespersons say they are trying to alter the perception of no confidence.

"Yes, there's been a change in our decision-making strategy," conceded D-11 Chief of Staff Ron Wynn concerning the community-input blitz of present. "We've switched from trying to sell the community decisions we've already made to making the community an ongoing partner in the process."

Last month, the district conducted a telephone survey asking 400 randomly-selected D-11 residents to prioritize 19 budget-cutting options. The option most picked was a reduction in administrators, with reducing administrative services ranked fourth.

Ranked second and third were increasing student user fees (e.g., athletics, band) and reducing program duplication in schools and agencies.

The options least palatable with respondents were closing smaller neighborhood elementary schools, increasing class sizes, cutting safety funding and reducing high school vocational programs.


Different priorities

A follow-up survey has been mailed to all D-11 parents and staff. The results won't be available until Feb. 2, but Kathy Glasmann, president of the D-11 teachers' union, reports teachers are selecting administrative cutbacks as the budget-reducing option of choice.

"We've asked teachers to fax us copies of their survey answers," said Glasmann. "Most are asking for budget cuts at the head shed (central administration). What and where to cut, though, varies from grade to grade and building to building."

The cost-saving option least popular with teachers, said Glasmann, is increasing class size.

Wynn agrees that these results point to a disparity between administration and community priorities, but says the administration is closing the gap.

"The board wants to look at the survey results very closely before making its decisions on February 23," said Wynn. "No cutback will be popular with everyone, but we'll try to respond to community priorities."

The district is likely to put another mill-levy-override request before voters this November.

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