Guest Editorial, February 18-21, 2012 | ParkRecord.com

Guest Editorial, February 18-21, 2012

Vern Christensen

The Park City School District is going through a budget review process. In the past two years, expenses exceeded tax revenues by some $7.3 million. In 2011 the district spent $2.3 million more than it collected in revenue and in 2012 it expects to spend $5.0 million more than collections.

Since 2007, the district has increased operating spending from $33.3 million (for 4,336 students) to a projected amount over $46 million (for 4,450 students in 2012) a 37 percent increase per student in a five-year period. Are our students getting a significantly better education today, or are taxpayers just paying more? How has this occurred during a period when our local economy and taxpayers experienced significant uncertainty?

The district and school board formed a budget committee tasked to find $5 million of cost savings. Since over 87 percent of the annual operating cost of the district is for salary and benefits, this seems the place to start. If you take 87 percent of the $5 million savings goal and divide it by the average annual licensed employee cost, or $85,000, the result is that you would need to eliminate 50 out of 300 licensed positions. However, we all know eliminating between 15 and 20 percent of the licensed employees could have a significant impact.

What other options are practicable?

The committee first recommended the return to its long-decreed average-class-size ratio of 23:1, saving almost $2 million; and, secondly, to focus on employee benefits. A first-year Park City teacher receives a base salary of $38,409, a $1,200 allowance, up to $1,800 for professional days, perhaps a coaching stipend, plus benefits: employer taxes, defined-benefit and defined-contribution pension, and health insurance. This teacher, with family health coverage, costs the district around $65,000 (a benefits load over 60 percent.) Compare this to a private-sector first-job-out-of-college employee. It may be difficult to find a private employer paying similar compensation and benefits for nine months of work, let alone twelve months of work.

The budget review committee made several cost-saving recommendations, including a salary freeze. In reality, to reduce expenses by $5 million requires a reduction in head count and/or lower compensation and benefits. Why? Because over ten years the average cost of a licensed employee increased 52 percent, head count increased 13 percent, and 87 percent of operating costs reflect salaries and benefits.

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As parents we want a high-quality education for our youth. But as taxpayers we should also ask whether we are getting the right value for the dollars spent and whether the right number of dollars is being spent. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the school district or the school board is asking the last question. In the last 10 years, the assessed value of properties within the district has gone from around $5.3 billion to the current amount around $11.0 billion, over a 100 percent increase, while the student head count only grew from 3,923 to 4,450, a 13 percent increase. Rather than reducing tax rates, tax revenues went up. Why should the district’s budget increase by 95 percent over ten years when school enrollment only increased by 13 percent, especially considering what happened to the economy?

Let the school board know how you feel about how the district has been managing our tax dollars to educate our children. Every month there is a school board meeting where public comment is allowed. As a former school board member, I can assure you that having taxpayers, parents, grandparents, empty-nesting homeowners, second-homeowners, students and employees voice their concerns and opinions provides balance to the decision-making process. The next school board meeting where public comment will be solicited is February 28 at 6:00 p.m. in the district office.

Vern Christensen is a former Park City School District board member.