GOLDEN – Colorado’s largest school district announced plans Friday to close two schools, cut all employees’ pay by 3 percent and trim two days from the school year in the face of nearly $40 million in cuts for 2011-12.
Jefferson County Public Schools’ budget proposal also includes charging students to ride school buses, reducing graduation requirements by a single credit and suspending a popular outdoor lab program that’s been a rite of passage for sixth-graders since 1962.
A total of 212 jobs will be cut across the district, including more than 100 teachers, but district leaders said most of that will come from normal attrition, not re-hiring temporary employees and leaving positions vacant.
“The impacts are deep,” Jeffco school board president Dave Thomas said at a morning news conference. “I am really profoundly saddened that we have to do these closures. However, we had very few choices and none of them were pleasant.”
The district of nearly 86,000 students had expected cuts in state school funding of $26 million, and already had drawn up plans to trim some jobs. School closures were considered, but rejected, by school board members in January.
That changed, Thomas said, when Gov. John Hickenlooper last month proposed steeper-than-expected cuts of $332 million in K-12 funding for fall. For Jeffco, the state cuts would mean a loss of $475 per student. Altogether, district officials say, they now must reduce expenses by $39.9 million.
“This is a lesson in frugality, unfortunately,” Thomas said. “During difficult times, you have to make difficult decisions.”
Proposal stems from budget summit
Hickenlooper’s budget announcement came Feb. 15, as Jeffco district and union leaders were participating in a national labor-management conference called by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
“We knew we had to do something different to address the crisis we were about to face,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers’ union.
“The way we fund public education has got to change. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call.”So on March 4 and 5, Jeffco held its first employee summit to tackle the budget, attended by two representatives each from the school board, district leadership, the teachers’ union, the administrators’ association and the union representing support staff such as secretaries and bus drivers. A federal mediator facilitated talks, and the budget proposal was created.
It is an all-or-nothing package, said Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, meaning it’s intended to be approved as a whole, without tinkering with individual components. A board vote is likely in May.
“If we start saying, maybe we won’t do this one, maybe we won’t do that one, we frankly go back to where we were before this two-day summit,” Thomas said. “Our intent was to do this as a unified group of people committed to the education of kids … We do not want to have a Wisconsin, believe me.”
Dallman and Bob Brown, executive director of the Jeffco Classified School Employees Association, met with their members Thursday night to go over the plan: The 3 percent pay cut comes from all employees working six fewer days in 2011-12. That likely means less time for training.
“Most people who work in support positions in public education do so because of the kids,” Brown said. “So I’m lucky they support the idea of trying to maintain as much as possible the quality of education in the classroom.”
Dallman said it was “difficult” to tell teachers about the pay cut, particularly since budget forecasts through 2013-14 look little better.
“We are fully committed to working with the district and our other employee groups,” she said. “But we also recognize that the way we fund public education has got to change. And hopefully, this is a wake-up call for the members of our organization, the community in Jefferson County and those across the state.”
Cuts rippling through school districts
Friday’s announcement makes Jeffco just the latest large metro-area district to propose significant changes to make ends meet.
On March 9, Douglas County school board members directed staff to explore placing a tax increase on the November ballot. The other budget option includes four furlough days for staff and sending $200 to $300 less per student to schools.
Denver’s budget decisions seem less dramatic, with $10 million in cuts to central services and schools receiving essentially flat funding for 2011-12. Employees will not get raises – but furloughs and layoffs are not expected, which Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributes partly to growing enrollment and $15 million in savings from a 2008 pension refinancing transaction.
Hickenlooper has said he is cutting K-12 education, which makes up more than 40 percent of the state budget, because he had nowhere else to go.
“We knew when the proposed budget was released last month that the fallout would be painful,” Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown said Friday. “There were no easy cuts in the budget, especially when it came to education. The state simply doesn’t have the ability to fund what it used to.”
Stevenson acknowledged that some of Jeffco’s proposed cuts – shortening the school year, reducing teacher training days – defy current thinking about what improves student achievement.
“We’re going backwards,” she said, at a time when expectations in law, such as Senate Bill 191, which ties educator evaluations to student academic growth, are increasing.
“We have to start having the kind of discussion and the dialogue about what we expect of our public services,” said Dallman, with the teachers’ union. “What kind of education do we want for our children in Jefferson County? It’s going to be the taxpayers that are going to have to answer that.”
Details of Jeffco budget proposal
School closures – Principals, teachers and parents at Martensen and Zerger elementary schools were notified this week of the district’s proposal to close them this spring. Jeffco estimates the district would save $300,000 per school per year in closing Martensen, which serves 240 students in Wheat Ridge, and Zerger, which enrolls 291 pupils in Westminster. Both schools have been on potential closure lists in the past two years as the district has grappled with budget cuts. Martensen students would be shifted to Stevens Elementary and Wheat Ridge Middle School, which would serve grades 5 through 8, while Zerger students would move to Warder, Weber and Lukas elementaries.
Student fees – The budget proposal includes a $150 annual bus fee for elementary, middle and high school students attending their neighborhood schools and a $175 annual fee for students attending options or choice schools, which draw students from across the district. Students qualifying for federal lunch assistance would receive waivers of the bus fees. If approved, Jeffco would become the third metro-area district, following Douglas County and Adams 12 Five Star, to charge for transportation. Athletic fees also are expected to increase but an exact amount hasn’t been set. Stevenson said the department has been given an amount to cut and is figuring out ways to get there.
Fewer school days – Jeffco’s 175-day school year for students would be reduced to 173 days as all employees work six fewer days, including two student-contact days. Stevenson, the superintendent, said she hopes to alert families within weeks to those likely changes to the 2011-12 calendar. The change would not put Jeffco at risk of too little time in school, she said. State law dictates the required number of minutes for schools to be in session, not a specific number of days.
Job cuts – Slightly over half of the 212 positions to be eliminated are teachers, including 53 elementary teachers, 17.5 middle school teachers (one part-time) and 40 high school teachers. District and union leaders said the majority of jobs cut would come through attrition, reducing employees on temporary one-year contracts and not filling already vacant positions. Dallman, the teachers’ union president, said no probationary or non-probationary teachers are expected to lose their jobs.
Class size increases – Fewer teaching positions would mean larger class sizes in most elementary school classrooms, district officials said, and fewer electives and scheduling options available for middle and high school students. Average class size in kindergarten is now 24, while it’s 20 in grades 1 through 3 and 24 in grade 4. Grades 5 and 6 average 28 students per class. Estimates of how high those numbers might go are not yet available.
Lower graduation requirements – To adjust for fewer high school teachers, the number of credits required to graduate would drop from 24 to 23 and students would no longer be required to have world language credits, a mandate which went into effect with the Class of 2013. The change relieves high schools of having to add language teachers to their staffs. Stevenson, the superintendent, estimated 70 to 80 percent of students would take world language classes anyway, since they’re required by most colleges and universities.
Suspend outdoor labs – Jeffco estimates it would save $900,000 per year by suspending programs for sixth-graders at Mt. Evans and Windy Peak outdoor education labs. Thomas, the school board president, said the popular labs have been in use since 1962 – but that, even with fees charged, they lose about $1 million a year.
Video highlights of Friday press conference on Jeffco budget cuts
Video length 1:59 minutes