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Where Exactly Can Denver Public Schools Save Money in Its Budget?

Last week my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow came out with a short, fun, and kid-friendly paper called “Colorado K-12 Tax Hikes Challenged.” The paper looked at five large school districts asking voters for more tax funds on this fall’s ballot: Jefferson County, Denver, Cherry Creek, Aurora, and St. Vrain Valley.

DeGrow acknowledged that these school budgets have faced more pressure than they are used to — mostly because per-pupil revenue growth has slowed down, but not actually dropped. Yet the household budgets of citizens in these communities have been hit even harder during the recent economic downturn. The paper concludes by offering “a different approach” that focuses on more productive spending.

Looking at one of the five districts, Denver Public Schools, a new report by EAG News makes some specific suggestions for spending reductions to inefficient salary structures and union perks. The total estimated annual savings would be $37.5 million, including the following proposals:

  • Eliminate automatic annual step raises for one year: $21.4 million
  • Cut benefits allowance budget by half for one year: $11.9 million
  • Reduce substitute cost one-third by cutting back on sick, professional days and sub pay: $633,000
  • Cut union release time costs by billing union dollar for dollar: $51,900

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has not exactly entered a period of austerity. DeGrow’s paper broke down data from the Colorado Department of Education to show that DPS increased per-student spending 27 percent in real dollars from 2001 to 2011. That’s more than any of the major Colorado districts holding a mill levy or bond election this fall. The lowest increase was Cherry Creek at 8.4 percent, while the other three raised per-pupil spending anywhere from 17 to 21 percent.

No doubt at least some of the suggestions produced through EAG’s analysis of the DPS collective bargaining agreement would apply to the other unionized districts. If a recent Fordham Institute survey is any indication, a growing number of American voters get it. Forty-eight percent said the best approach to addressing their local school district’s fiscal challenges is to “cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business” while only 11 percent opted for raising taxes.

Taken altogether, the reported information offers an important reminder to get all the facts before making a decision on your school tax ballot in 2012.