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Voices: Why I'll support Jeffco schools in November

Mom of three and Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson encourages Jeffco voters to set politics aside, put kids first and support the district tax proposals at the polls in November.

As a parent with children in Jefferson County Schools for the last 18 years and an active leader in the community, I’ve kept a close and critical eye on my school district.

I’ve seen school board members from all walks come and go. I’ve been unhappy with some past decisions made by the district, applauded its smart choices and frequently lobbied school board members regarding various issues. Through time spent serving on district committees, I have also learned a tremendous amount about the district’s budget.

Over 18 years I have watched class size grow, in increments, while state and federal funding has continued to decrease. I have witnessed an increasing demoralization of teachers, particularly in the last eight years, as new laws/mandates place heavier burdens on their shoulders without providing the resources/funding those new laws require. School nurses are long gone, replaced with part-time clinic aides. Secretaries have fewer hours to complete larger workloads. Custodians now clean classrooms less often meaning illness spreads faster.

At the same time, Jeffco Public Schools has made $78 million in cuts since 2009. The district reserves, wisely built after the passage of the 2004 mill levy – a decision I confess to being critical of at the time – are gone. Administrators have been cut to 388 – most of those remaining are principals and assistant principals – for roughly 12,000 employees. Many of our schools need new roofs, HVAC systems, fire and safety system upgrades, and more to keep our children in safe and comfortable learning environments.

In addition, our teachers have willingly taken a 3 percent reduction in pay while surrounding districts like Boulder – whose 2002 and 2010 mill levies passed while Jeffco’s 2008 mill levy failed – have been able to offer a pay increase to their teachers.

And with all of that, Jeffco schools have the second-highest graduation rate of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, tied with Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax County is the second wealthiest county in the country and Jeffco is 99th. We also score higher than the state average on TCAPS.

Clearly, despite severe funding cuts, our district has been able to maintain a high quality of excellence in our public schools. There comes a breaking point, however, and we have reached it. With reserves gone and projected cuts of $45 million for the 2013-2014 school year, we are looking at a loss of 600 employees, 400 of them teachers and teacher-librarians, custodians – meaning classrooms will be cleaned on an even less frequent basis – secretaries, who keep tabs on our children’s attendance, and counselors and assistant principals, a security risk since these are the very people with ears to the ground in our middle and high schools. We will also lose elementary instrumental music and the Outdoor Lab program.

Despite all this, I continue to hear erroneous statements like “we can’t keep throwing money at our schools” or “it’s not the amount of funding, it’s how it’s managed” or “just cut some administrators.”

My son’s high school, a school of 1,500 students, stands to lose nearly $1 million from its general fund next year. My principal says this means the loss of six teachers, a security guard, and an assistant principal as well as the loss of art, music, theater and P.E. elective choices, perhaps even some Advanced Placement courses. My son, a freshman, is in the high school marching band. He loves it, it makes school that much more enjoyable for him. It has helped motivate him in many ways and the thought of watching him lose this makes me want to cry.

Our children should not have to lose out. We owe them better. Ballot questions 3A and 3B will cost the average Jeffco homeowner (someone who owns a $250,000 home) $3.06 a month. This low cost is the direct result of responsible handling of taxpayer dollars. When I cast my vote in favor of 3A and 3B, I won’t be thinking about the politics surrounding education or unions or political parties – I’ll be thinking about my son and the 85,000 children like him in Jefferson County. When other Jefferson County voters fill out their ballots in November, I hope they will do the same.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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