Last year, as the Colorado budget was battered by the worst economy in generations, the Douglas County school district had to chop $36 million from its budget. So, among other things, it cut $2 million from administration, including several jobs. It continued charging students 50 cents each way to ride the bus. It eliminated 177 teaching positions.
So imagine the public's surprise when, late last year, it learned that the district had a big chunk of unspent money left in the $390 million 2010-11 general-fund budget: $66 million, to be exact.
In Douglas County these days, emotions are running high on just about everything, from teachers unions to a proposed voucher program. So when news of the surplus hit, many questioned district budgeting practices, and opponents of district policies saw an opportunity to galvanize public opinion.
"Seeing these cuts in schools and knowing there's money out there, it's kind of shocking," said Jed Walker, a parent of three Douglas County students.
His wife, Linda Walker, said an award-winning teacher at their daughter's school left because she couldn't be offered a permanent position.
It's all enough to have Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen answering complex questions about revenue streams and carry-over balances during her telephone town-hall meetings and on her blog.
In that blog, she takes issue with accusations from critics that Douglas County schools are intentionally withholding money that should be going to into classrooms.