When I took on the role of interim superintendent for Douglas County School District last fall, the prospect of tackling our district's challenges was a daunting one. With such a large district and so many voices needing to be heard, I decided the first place to begin was inside our 87 schools, talking to the people I would be serving.
During my visits, principals and teachers took time to share their school pride and achievements with me, and we had some honest and frank discussions about their concerns. I am so grateful for those conversations because they gave me a much clearer picture of where to begin.
Since then, my team and I have put those concerns right out there in the middle of the room, and are working to address them one by one. However, it has become clear that there is a particularly large elephant in the room: funding.
Before this turns into a traditional school district complaint about needing more money (who hasn't heard that one before?), I want to express my commitment to use every single taxpayer dollar responsibly. Coming from the charter school world, I know a great deal about tight budgets and the importance of doing more for less, while putting students first.
Although declining education funding is a challenge shared by school districts across our state, it has become painfully clear that DCSD's funding gap compared to our neighboring school districts is unique. It's putting our district at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to teacher retention and student programming. In particular, that disadvantage translates to $100 million a year in funding imbalance when compared to Cherry Creek School District.
We are dealing with a seriously big elephant, but someone recently reminded me that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. So, my team and I have rolled up our sleeves and begun. As a result of our initial efforts, I am thrilled to share that we will be sending $8.65 million more to our schools next year to help offset unavoidable reductions due to increased costs and lower enrollment.
We started by introducing zero-based budgeting to our school district. In previous years, departments were allowed to carry over any remaining funds in their budgets and they were allocated the same (or more) dollars in the next school year. Now we are purposefully focusing on needs and priorities, rather than just carrying over dollars. It is a bit like blowing the whole thing up and starting over, but it's the best way to ensure that we are using every dollar consciously and intentionally.
We have reorganized, cut central administration positions and tightened central expense lines. As the budgeting process moves forward, we will continue to cinch everything with an eye towards funding pay increases. The budget will be finalized in the spring.
A successful school begins with great school leaders, teachers and staff. Successful school districts focus on valuing and retaining those great teachers, principals and support staff.
For my part, I am committed to making sure our staff, families and community have the latest information about our situation, the decisions my staff and I are making, and why we are making them.
I want you to have confidence that your tax money is being invested wisely and in the best interest of our schools and students.
Yes, we have challenges (and elephants) right now in DCSD. But we also have all the ingredients required to be one of the most amazing school districts in this country. Together we can get there, one bite at a time.
Erin Kane serves as the Douglas County School District interim superintendent. The most recent DCSD Board of Education budget presentation may be viewed at http://bit.ly/DCSDBudgetUpdate.