Gilpin Schools deal with pandemic and finances

School Board plans for the future with teacher salaries and septic system replacement

By Curt Halsted

The Gilpin County School Board Meeting on February 2nd, 2021, was focused on the pandemic and financial projections.

Pandemic Report

School superintendent Dr. David MacKenzie was cautious in celebrating that after 67 days of in person learning there have been no positive COVID-19 individuals within the school’s student and staff populations. Even though we have had only one quarantine, we are still on the day to day plan as the pandemic is certainly live and well. As new strains of the virus begin to surface, we could see a quarantine in any grade level, group, or school. After a Gilpin County Staff member expressed a desire to have teachers tested regularly at school, Dr. MacKenzie expressed that the Gilpin County School Covid Health Team continues to recommend that staff get tested at the Gilpin County Public Health Office when they resume providing tests after finding the PCR mouth swab test they were providing was proved ineffective by CDC. The Gilpin School staff is looking forward to being scheduled this month for a mass vaccination of staff at school. Gilpin County Health will be providing them when vaccinations become available. Board Member Tracy Krug commented that it is pretty amazing we have gotten to this point with only one quarantine. Dr. Mackenzie commended staff and students for following protocols and also gave parents credit for taking an active role.

Budget Projections

Gilpin County School Business Manager Terry Scharg attended the meeting, and shared that this year’s current budget is in line with projections. Ms. Scharg also shared that if the Governor’s proposed budget gets passed as it is now, that the 2021/2022 school year is projected to be solvent. Acknowledging that we will be losing two large classes and that a pandemic related enrollment decrease may continue, she projected possible revenue decreases for the 2022/2023 school year. She encouraged the school board to proceed with caution and consider the long-term financial possibilities. Board President Steve Boulter was cognizant of the potential shortfall, but hopeful that enrollment will increase when our local economy is able to get back on track. He expressed pride in Gilpin Schools, saying that if we keep providing the best education like we are, we will see growth.

Teacher Base Salary Increase

The board showed a strong desire in raising the bottom of the salary grid to make our district competitive with neighboring districts. Scharg offered the pros and cons of the raises. Board Member Sarah Swanson asked for a 5 year analysis plan considering income and savings from decreased enrollment projections and savings from current teacher retirements, compared to expenses from raising the base salary for teachers and concurrent step increases. Board members agreed with Scharg to plan for the future when making budget considerations, and to continue saving for big future expenses. They were also adamant about the need to keep Gilpin competitive and marketable by hiring, supporting, and retaining quality teachers. When Boulter asked Scharg, “Do you feel we can give the step increases,” she replied that the increase was feasible, but down the road it may cause a problem if revenue decreases. Swanson pointed out that if enrollment decreases we will not need as many teachers, but when we need to hire more teachers we won’t be able to recruit and hire quality teachers if our pay scale is not competitive. She went on to say that, “Right now we are not competitive.” Dr. MacKenzie praised Scharg for her ability to plan for the future. Scharg’s careful budgeting has helped the district get through reduced enrollment and funding decreases from financial recessions. He suggested that the School Board consider making a resolution to reserve funds in the Colorado Trust to be used as a safety net to insure that the district will have time to adjust to future budget shortfalls. With something like this in place, he was confident that the district would be able to afford the teacher base salary increase.

Mill Levy and Wastewater Plant Discussion

On the past November ballot, the school district requested that voters raise property taxes and pass a little less that one mill increase. It lost by 13 votes. Board member Joe Marr implied that voters will be more likely to pass the mill levy when the budget doesn’t show millions in savings for special projects. The board agreed that the mill levy is something we need to keep going for. Currently the district is preparing to upgrade the school’s wastewater system by possibly connecting to the Black Hawk wastewater system, or replace the current facility. The district has managed to save $2,000,000 for this overdue upgrade to the facility, and is waiting on a plan that would show the comparative expense to connecting to the city municipal system. Currently it is thought that the pipeline to Black Hawk would cost more than twice the amount for replacement of the wastewater plant. The district is hopeful that a DOLA grant will pay for half the project. The downside to rebuilding the current plant is that it would still need to be replaced again after ten years. Conversely, connecting to the Black Hawk Waste Water system would be a permanent solution. Board Member Joe Marr pointed out that the community needs to understand that the money in savings is already spent. One unique funding source Gilpin School District has is a portion of the city of Black Hawks sales tax. This arrangement was made with the casinos to ensure that property taxes would not be raised above eight mills for the school. The current mill levy is 7.105. Dr. MacKenzie pointed out that the slight increase to 8 mills would be the top tax rate for the school district unless they forfeit the Black Hawk tax revenue. This unique funding program has awarded the school $10 million dollars over the 12 years since inception in January 2009.

After much discussion on how to carry the district forward financially, the last item discussed was planning for the evaluation of the superintendent. Board members agreed on the importance of this and the process they will use. The meeting was adjourned at 8:22 pm.

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