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Jeffco goes to voters for more money

The Jefferson County school board voted 4-1 Thursday evening to ask district residents for a $39 million revenue increase and a $99 million bond issue to bolster the district’s finances.

The board also gave final 4-1 approval to a 2012-13 district budget that cuts spending by about $20 million, the latest in several years of budget cuts.

The two issues are intertwined, because district officials predict that Jeffco could face $43.5 million in reductions in 2013-13 – deeply cutting programs and staff – if voters don’t approve the spending increase.

The meeting ran for more than four hours and was marked by repeated disagreements between conservative member Laura Boggs and her four colleagues, a familiar board dynamic.

Things were exacerbated by the fact that Boggs wasn’t in the boardroom at district headquarters in Golden – she participated by speakerphone. Since she had no visual contact with the rest of the board, she and the others kept verbally tripping over each other when Boggs tried to speak. She was the only no vote on the tax proposal, the budget and approval of the district’s contract with the Jefferson County Education Association.

At one point Boggs said she wished she were in the room, and board President Lesley Dahlkemper replied, “We’d love to have you here at the board meeting.”

The meeting also was extended by a lengthy public testimony session, primarily focused on the proposed bond issue and tax override. Most of the speakers urged the board to support the plan, with members of the large audience waving their hands in the air in shows of support after speakers finished. (Applause is frowned upon, so hand waving is the acceptable alternative.)

Speakers for two opposing citizen groups summarized some of the arguments over the tax election.

Byron Gale of Citizens for Jeffco Schools said the district urgently needs the extra revenue. “We’re eagerly awaiting the green light from the board so we can get on with the campaign,” he said. “With the right grassroots campaign I like our chances.”

But Sheila Atwell of Jeffco Students First questioned whether more spending would help flat achievement and graduation levels. “Do dollars mean better schools? I just don’t see that being the case.”

The tax increase would be used to maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, cover utility costs and restore some cuts, according to district officials. The bond issue would be used for building upgrades.

The net effect of the proposal would be a $14.68 property tax increase for each $100,000 of a home’s value.

District voters last passed a tax increase and bond issue in 2004.

Next year’s district general fund budget will be about $557 million. (The total budget, including all funds, will be about $930 million.) The $20 million shortfall is being made up by continuation of a 3 percent compensation cut for employees, use of $5 million in reserves and $7 million in administrative reductions, among other measures. The budget assumes two furlough days and a four-day reduction in the work year.

Some board members used the discussion to vent about the financial pressures Jeffco faces. “The state finance act needs some revision,” said member Paula Noonan. “The legislature seems to think this is something fantastic,” she added, referring to the fact the state school spending is being held flat this year, rather than being cut again. “We are in a hole, and we are not getting out of the hole.”

Noting projected future cuts for the district, Dahlkemper said, “We want to retain the best and the brightest in Jefferson County. … I worry about how much longer we can hold on to those employees.”