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Jeffco budget proposal delays painful cuts

LAKEWOOD – Hundreds of Jefferson County parents, students and teachers have filled school board meeting rooms in recent months to protest proposed cuts in elementary music teachers, librarians, instructional coaches and guidance counselors.

Friday, district leaders unveiled a budget plan for 2012-13 that maintains all of those jobs – but they warned it’s only a one-year reprieve to allow community members to consider a possible tax increase in November.

“Members of the board of education must hear from our community if our community doesn’t want to see the drastic cuts for the 2013-14 school year,” school board president Lesley Dahlkemper said during a morning press conference at Lakewood High School.

Next year’s proposed budget includes nearly $20 million in reductions, stemming largely from a continued 3 percent pay cut for district employees, pulling another $5 million from district reserves and trimming 31 administrative and support positions, including 10 custodians.

The 2013-14 plan, however, involves nearly $44 million in reductions, including cutting 574 jobs. Of those, 471 are teaching positions.

“Essentially what we’ve done is kicked the can down the road one year,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jeffco teachers’ union. “We could have made cuts this year to classroom teachers. But we recognized that that was not serving our students.

“By pushing it off one more year, it gives us a chance to go to the community and ask them what kind of education they want to support and pay for.”

Jeffco leaders have been publicly wrestling for months with how they’ll trim up to $60 million over the next two years, as state funding continues to decline and the gap between district revenues and district expenses continues to widen.

Employee summit yields tentative agreement

Friday’s proposal follows a two-day summit held last week and attended by two school board members, two administrators and two representatives of each of the district’s teacher, clerical and administrative employee groups.

It’s the second year that the state’s largest school district has used a summit to come up with a budget plan that will go before the school board as a package to be voted up or down. Tinkering with components would send the plan back for more negotiations with employee groups.

Last year’s summit proposal, which was approved, included closing two schools, charging students to ride the school bus and cutting some 200 jobs as Jeffco sought to reduce the 2011-12 budget by nearly $40 million.

This year, those attending the summit were equipped with a series of proposed reductions from a citizens’ advisory group, survey results, input from standing-room-only school board meetings and feedback from five Saturday community forums.

“Our no. 1 goal was to keep those cuts as far away from the classroom as possible and to preserve jobs,” Dahlkemper said. “Jeffco is the largest employer in the county.”

Rod Pugnetti, principal of Drake Middle School in Arvada, who attended the summit as president of the Jeffco administrators association, said deciding that goal was key.

“When we came into the room and decided to keep it away from people, that was a huge weight off our shoulders,” he said. “Because now we could move forward with staffing and creating our master schedules and moving forward with what’s important for kids…

“That being said, what we have to do in the years to come is quite scary.”

Asking Jeffco voters for a tax increase

Residents of this sprawling suburban district west of Denver last approved a tax hike for school district operating dollars in 2004, when 60 percent of voters agreed to a $38.5 million annual increase.

They defeated a 2008 ballot measure to raise more operating dollars for schools.

“We have to do a lot of grassroots work” to win a 2012 measure, said Cindy Stevenson, who’s seen victory and defeat at the polls as she worked her way from classroom teacher to superintendent. “I’m hopeful. That doesn’t mean I’m certain.”

Even if a tax increase were successful this November, district leaders said they would still need to cut $20 million – rather than the $44 million now in the proposal – for 2013-14.

Dahlkemper said that “underscores the importance of identifying a funding fix statewide for K-12 education as soon as possible.”

While a Denver District Court judge has declared the state’s K-12 funding system “unconstitutional,” which could mean more money for public schools, both Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education are appealing the ruling. A legal resolution may be months, if not years, away.

So the focus for some school districts, including Jeffco but also Denver, appears to be on local ballot measures.

“We’ve bought the community one more year to decide what kind of education system they want for their kids,” said Bob Brown, who represents Jeffco workers including secretaries and custodians. “These cuts could change the district for a long time. It’s hard to rebuild some of these programs once you reduce them.”

School board members are expected to begin discussions of the summit proposal at their March board meeting. They face an August deadline to decide whether to ask voters for a tax increase.

“Why are we raising our ongoing expenses when we know the revenue is not going to be there?”
–Laura Boggs, Jeffco boardBoard member Laura Boggs, who did not attend the summit, said she needs time to consider the proposal.

She said she did not like the continuation of a two-day cut in the school year for students, which is part of the 3 percent pay cut for all employees: “That’s not good for kids.”

And she was concerned that the plan did not include requiring district employees to pick up a mandated .9 percent increase in pension costs, which would have saved $4.5 million and was one of the top five recommendations of the citizens’ budget group.

“Why are we raising our ongoing expenses when we know the revenue is not going to be there?” Boggs asked.

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