CASTLE ROCK — 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.

"This insinuation is unfortunate for the health of our district as well as being absolutely false," Fagen wrote.


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School board president John Carson put it even more bluntly.

"We're not going to be hoarding money, I can tell you that," he said.

How much of the extra money will end up reducing the number of kids in classes next year remains to be seen.

In her blog, Fagen wrote that she hopes the budget for the coming school year does not include furlough days for staff and teachers, and she said she hopes to craft a budget that "reduces class size and preserves electives in our high schools."

Sarah Pook, a Chaparral High senior and a founder of Students Making a Reliable Tomorrow, or SMART, said students would appreciate that.

"I think there are 44 or so (students) in my AP physics class, so it's really hard when we try to do experiments," she said. "It's chaos."

She said her teachers are working extra hard, and she understands that her district, like every other, is facing serious budget problems. But she and her fellow SMART members, who she says number about 100, don't buy the idea that nothing can be done about it.

"To me as a student, that's not good enough," Pook said. "We want the best education possible."

District leaders say they're doing everything they can to provide that.

"Any surpluses above a prudent level we'd certainly put into the classroom," Carson said.

But what that prudent level will be is hard to predict at this point, district officials say, because it's not clear how much state money they will get.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed restoring an estimated $89 million in cuts to public education in this budget year and the next. But the legislature still must sign off on that. In the meantime, lawmakers are tussling over whether to restore the property-tax exemption for seniors. If they do, some predict that could cost the state about $100 million this budget year and the next.

Such uncertainty is why, Fagen wrote on her blog, the district is "preparing for what we believe is the worst case scenario, and from there, discussing what we will do in the event of a smaller reduction."

In addition, all but $26.8 million is already earmarked for something, including $8.5 million that was allocated to individual schools but not spent by those schools. That money stays with the schools, said chief financial officer Bonnie Betz. And $11.7 million has already been infused into the current year's budget to prevent further cuts.

Another $543,000 surplus in the transportation department will stay with the transportation department, Betz said.

Fagen, who took over as superintendent in 2010, and Betz, who followed Fagen from the Tucson Unified School District, attribute the excess money to a number of factors, including practices of previous administrations.

Unexpected savings, in areas such as energy costs, contributed as well, Betz said.

In addition, about $4.8 million is money saved by offering early-separation agreements to staff, Betz said, and $6 million came from one-time federal stimulus grants.

Carson said the amount of leftover money — "I wouldn't call it a surplus," he said, saying "unassigned funds" would be more accurate — didn't cause concern.

"The board has great confidence in our CFO and our superintendent," he said. "We've been well-briefed on budget numbers. Our feeling is we've been very prudent in our budget in recent years, and that's going to allow us to weather cuts going forward more effectively than other school districts in the Denver area."

Parent Jed Walker, though, doesn't share that confidence.

"I don't have any trust in them now to do anything right," he said.

Karen Augé: 303-954-1733 or kauge@denverpost.com