School board seeks input on budget questions

-A A +A

While there are many opinions about how we should educate our children in Jefferson County, we can all agree on one underlying principle — we care about our children, and we want the best for them.
Jeffco schools have struggled over the last three years to manage more than $60 million in state funding cuts without hurting kids. We have reduced costs, closed under-enrolled schools, trimmed staff, streamlined administration and cut compensation.
The district’s rainy-day fund helped cushion these blows. Without these funds, budget cuts would have totaled $127 million. But the rainy-day fund will run dry as state funding cuts continue into the foreseeable future.  
As the largest school district in the state, Jeffco now receives $700 less per student than it did in 2009. We’re not alone. School districts across Colorado have far fewer dollars to educate students.
On March 1, the school board approved a 2012-13 budget agreement that will protect classrooms for one more year.  It reflects the community’s funding priorities, including elementary instrumental music, teacher librarians and Outdoor Lab. The plan maintains class sizes and efficient staffing levels.
To help balance the budget, Jeffco employees agreed to another year of 3 percent reductions in take-home pay with the continuation of two furlough days. From 2011 through 2013 alone, Jeffco employees will have absorbed nearly $32 million in decreased compensation. They also are paying for substantial increases in health insurance costs.  
The board tapped another $5 million from the district’s rainy-day fund and $3 million from the capital-transfer fund. Deep cuts in administration and central support services resulted in the final $7 million needed to balance the budget.
Next year is a different story.  Jeffco schools will face $43 million in reductions. The cut list includes 500 teaching positions, elementary instrumental music, Outdoor Lab, teacher librarians, counselors, school secretaries, instructional coaches and more.
Despite this grim outlook, we are proud of our students who outperformed the state in all grade levels and content areas on the CSAP in 2011. Eighty percent of third-graders in Jeffco read at or above grade level. Our graduation rates rank fifth in the nation among the 50 largest school districts (according to Education Week), and more students are pursuing post-secondary education.
The district’s commitment to student success even attracted a large federal grant to test new ways to support and reward effective teachers. Jeffco Public Schools is at the forefront of redesigning its compensation system to hire and retain top teachers.
And we’ll need all the teacher talent, parent involvement and community support available to tackle our ongoing challenges. More than 30 percent of Jeffco students live in poverty, and 2,800 students are homeless. A great education will give these young people their best chance for a better life.  
We must continue to have candid, meaningful conversations as a community about where we’re headed and how we will get there. The future of our kids depends on us.
Join us on Saturday, April 28, as school board members host community conversations across Jeffco. Visit the district’s website at www.jeffcopublicschools.org for details to come. Or, share your thoughts during public comment at a board meeting on April 5 and May 3, or via e-mail at board@jeffco.k12.co.us. The board must vote on the final budget by June 7.
We’ve all been rocked by these hard times. Our parents and grandparents faced hard times, too. It was their commitment that led us to a good life in Jefferson County. Now it’s up to us to make sure our kids get there too.

This column is from Jeffco school board members Lesley Dahlkemper, Jill Fellman, Robin Johnson and Paula Noonan