Less than four months from next school year, Jeffco has begun brainstorming ways learning might change to protect staff and students from a second wave of the coronavirus. While exact changes are …
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Less than four months from next school year, Jeffco has begun brainstorming ways learning might change to protect staff and students from a second wave of the coronavirus. While exact changes are still up in the air, Superintendent Jason Glass said in an April 23 Facebook Live video that the district is looking at a blend of remote and in-person learning next semester.
Necessary safety measures like this are bound to require more staff, teachers believe, only adding to widespread uncertainty in a time when the district has not only announced that the creation of new positions is unlikely, but pay cuts or layoffs could be necessary to balance next year’s budget.
“Trying to increase a class size just doesn’t make sense for social distancing or their (students') mental health,” said Jon Cefkin, first-grade teacher at Lukas Elementary in Westminster. “It doesn’t mesh with cutting budgets.”
The same is true of support professionals, said Lara Center, president of support professionals’ union JESPA. Depending on what social distancing and cleaning measures are put in place, the district may need to hire more support staff including bus drivers and custodians, she said.
“We’re going to need more support staff, not less,” Center said. “And our bones are picked clean; almost all of the ESP (education support professionals) groups are running negative. There’s nowhere else to cut.”
Jeffco has been finding itself in a grimmer and grimmer budget reality. In early April, the financial team expected the district would need to make just about $2 million in cuts. As of the April 29 school board study session, chief financial officer Kathleen Askelson said based on reports from the state, the financial team is planning to build a budget factoring in over $60 million in cuts, which the board will discuss for the first time on May 7.
The budget must be adopted by the end of June and for now, the board plans to hold a meeting to adopt the budget June 4. The $60 million number is highly subject to change before then, as the state won’t finalize its budget until the end of May.
For now, the district is asking the community to weigh in on upcoming cuts, with options including pay cuts, layoffs, district and school programming cuts, furlough days, school closures and using a possible $20 million from the district’s reserves.
For Ernest Garibay, a math teacher at Standley Lake High School, one worry is that many of these options “will mostly affect our highest impacted students first” including minority, low-income, special education and English language learning students, he said.
In the case of layoffs, “the first thing that jumps to my mind is larger class sizes. It’s going to be much harder to get students individualized attention,” Garibay said. Further, “case loads for counselors, ESL specialists and special ed (teachers) are really high. They’re already trying to keep their head above water.”
He believes cuts that reduce the number of elective opportunities would also have a noticeable negative impact.
“There are definitely students who only come because they can go to music, they can go to art class, they can go to drama,” he said.
For teachers like Garibay and Jefferson Jr/Sr High teacher Rhiannon Wenning, the idea of pay cuts is also a concern.
“We’re still suffering from the 2008 recession; I was here during that and I’m still hurting,” Wenning said. “I can barely make it now as a 20-year veteran teacher with two master’s degrees, so I can imagine how our probationary teachers are doing.”
With the district’s deadline to approve the budget getting closer, teachers’ union JCEA and JESPA have been working closely together to discuss with the district what they would like to see in the weeks ahead.
While the groups aim to stay realistic about how much the district can do, they also plan to ask that “cuts are kept as far away from our classrooms as possible,” said Brooke Williams, recently elected JCEA president who will officially begin serving this summer.
The groups are also pushing for more extensive surveying of the community on budget values and additional meetings between the district and stakeholders.
“I’d like to see a budget presentation with all of the employee associations to go through (the budget) line by line and then look back at that survey,” Williams said.
As of April 29, the district had planned several methods to gather input, including an upcoming community survey, teacher advisory committee and student town hall.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the associations’ specific priorities, Center said that while union members need more information before outlining what they’d like to see, one idea could be to get rid of the least necessary positions while transitioning those employees into other unfilled positions, saving money and preventing job loss.
Cefkin added that for some JCEA members, many options may be painful but more preferable than a district-wide pay cut.
“Things are still on the table, but I think paycuts are a more difficult thing to sell than maybe a furlough day,” he said.
Another option might be to absorb some of the cuts through central administration pay cuts, Wenning proposed. At the April 29 study session, Glass said the pay for those positions account for around $7.5 million in total.
Even larger-scale solutions are also on teachers’ minds, with Wenning and Garibay encouraging residents to help get Initiative 271 on the 2020 ballot. The initiative would lower taxes for an estimated 95% of taxpayers but raise taxes for residents with the highest income, generating new money for education.
In the meantime, with cuts inevitable next year, “teachers will rise to the occasion to do everything they can to support our students going forward,” Garibay said. “We know what our kids’ needs are, and we are always that frontline for students.”
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