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In Jeffco, pleading to keep cuts at bay

LAKEWOOD – A crowd of more than 500 filled the Lakewood High School auditorium Thursday and spilled into the hallway to watch a big-screen version of teachers and parents inside urging Jeffco school board members not to cut their jobs or favored programs.

“If this position is taken away, then our team dissolves,” pleaded a dozen or so staff members from Parmalee Elementary in Indian Hills, echoing numerous others. “Remember our voices. We are Jeffco.”

With 90 people signed up to speak and predictions of a pending blizzard, school board president Lesley Dahlkemper resorted to negotiations to keep an efficient flow to the microphones.

“Can you do five, five and five?” she said, encouraging three groups representing instructional coaches to keep their comments to five minutes each.

Instructional coaches are among the groups threatened by the $50 million to $60 million in cuts facing the state’s largest school district over the next two years.

So are school librarians, guidance counselors and elementary music teachers, along with the district’s gifted and talented program and its outdoor lab. Those and numerous others are contained in a prioritized list of suggestions for cuts created in December by a citizens’ advisory group.

Thursday was the school board’s second public comment session since the list was released and the second to draw hundreds of people to a meeting to urge board members not to follow its contents.

After an audience packed the board’s meeting in January, where the possible elimination of elementary instrumental music teachers was the focus, district leaders decided to move Thursday’s meeting to the more spacious auditorium.

Another sign of public interest in the process came Saturday, when about 600 people participated in five community budget forums at high schools across the county, said district spokeswoman Lynn Setzer.

Board members, who will make the final budget decision in May or June, have emphasized that the prioritized list is not binding. So they’ve become the targets of emotional appeals.

School librarians appeared to be the biggest group at Thursday’s meeting, with many audience members wearing stickers on their shirts that read “Support School Libraries.” The prioritized list calls for reducing all 92 elementary librarians to half-time and eliminating middle school librarians altogether.

But guidance counselors and instructional coaches, along with their supporters, also were out in large numbers.

Sandy Austin, a counselor at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, said district counselors have handled 88 suicide risk assessments this year.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” she said. “Please save our counselors’ jobs so we can save our kids.”

The list of suggested reductions includes cutting up to 17 middle and high school counselors and as many as 20 instructional coaches.

Several schools, such as Parmalee, Powderhorn and Hutchinson elementaries and Carmody Middle School, turned out in force to give moving testimony to the power of their coaches.

Corey Lynn, a sixth-grade teacher at Hutchinson, said the school’s instructional coach, Christina Larson, helps him with a class of 34 students.

“With the class sizes so huge, these kids are like flowers competing for the sun and many of them get lost.”
— Jeffco elementary teacher“With the class sizes so huge, these kids are like flowers competing for the sun and many of them get lost,” Lynn said. “I can’t reach every single kid without someone there to look at the data and to pinpoint the needs of the kids and to reach those kids who are overshadowed.

“I can’t do it alone. I am overwhelmed.”

Audience members quickly dwindled throughout the evening as speakers made their comments and left, eager to avoid the coming snowstorm.

Tomorrow, two school board members and two district officials will meet with representatives of employee groups for Jeffco’s second annual employee summit, where they’re expected to talk about pay and benefits for next year.

Jeffco employees, along with many others in Colorado school districts, are in year three without cost-of-living raises. This year, all employees also took a 3 percent pay cut and two furlough days.

Shortly before public comment began Thursday, board members voted 4-1 to close employee negotiations to the public. Board member Laura Boggs was the only “no” vote.

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