Falcon 49 Takes Another Noteworthy Bold Step in Following Innovative Path

About four weeks ago I raised the question about Falcon School District 49’s school buses at the State Capitol stunt: Are they serious about tough decisions ahead? Well, in a story reported this week by the Colorado Springs Gazette‘s Kristina Iodice, the answer appears to be Yes:

A staffing plan that eliminates 143 jobs, including teaching positions, in Falcon School District 49 was approved Wednesday by the school board.

Board members also voted to reinstate the Transportation Department as fee-for-service operation with no budget other than the money necessary to bus special education students. That vote caused the crowd at Falcon High School to erupt in applause.

After that cheerful moment, Chief Education Officer Becky Carter delivered her staffing plan, which was approved but not released Wednesday. It eliminated 108 positions in schools; 16 in learning and pupil services; 10 in special education; six in facility maintenance, and three 3 in other/administration.

Of course, Falcon 49 is the 15,000-student school district in the Pikes Peak region that’s pursuing innovation district status. The school board set the budget parameters for each of the four zones of innovation and left specific decisions on staffing positions (except for proposed cuts at the shrinking central administration level) up to the building principals and zone leaders.

Using admittedly year-old Colorado Department of Education data, the result looks like about an 8 percent reduction in the workforce — or moving from roughly 1 staff member per 8 students closer to a ratio of 1:9. Much of the downsizing will be achieved through attrition, but school- and zone-level proposals to change programs will also impact some existing support staff, paraprofessionals, and non-probationary teachers who end up applying unsuccessfully for other positions within the district.

Falcon 49 is reducing 2011-12 spending by $10.5 million – $11 million, a result of federal ARRA stimulus dollars drying up; required contribution increases to PERA, Colorado’s public employee pension system; pressing capital and technology needs; and uncertainty about state K-12 spending. Board treasurer Andy Holloman told the Education Policy Center‘s Ben DeGrow that plans were made based on the originally proposed $332 million cut to K-12 rather than lesser reductions that have been promised in the current iteration of the School Finance Act.

“As much as we want to believe in the state, they often will come back and pull [some money] out later in the middle of the year,” Holloman said. “We decided to make deeper cuts now rather than later, so we hope to be better prepared for that.”

As the Gazette article explains, the Falcon 49 Board also opted against cutting the district’s transportation services, but required the department to self-fund. That likely means fees will be put into effect. Still, the big story in Falcon remains the district’s forward-thinking innovation plan. “We believe we will come out of this not just more efficient but more effective, too,” said Holloman.

Key to that success is increasing parental involvement, as well as empowering individual teachers. “If there were problems in the classroom, the central office was blamed,” he said. “We took that excuse away.”

Tough decisions are being made, as Falcon pursues a bold and innovative path. A lot of interested eyes will continue to watch and see just how this leads to better results for students.