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Five groups found unique ways to cut $40M from Jeffco schools’ budget

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Whacking nearly $40 million from Jefferson County Public Schools’ proposed budget last month proved no easy task.

But the means to that end, believed to be unique in Colorado, introduced a consensus-building approach that participants say worked uncommonly well as a crisis-management tool and could become a model for future budget talks.

 Two representatives from each of five groups — the school board, two employee unions, administrators and district leadership — gathered over two days to address not just their individual concerns but the overarching fiscal challenge.

 “It was 17 hours of quality time together,” Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson says. “Everybody gave. Nobody got everything they wanted. It was a remarkable process.”

 In negotiations parlance, it’s sometimes called intraspace problem- solving, or win-win, or mutual gains. Jeffco’s participants called it a “summit.”

Denver-based federal mediator Jon Numair, who already knew some of the Jeffco players and was well-versed in the process, served as facilitator.

Mediators use this technique every day to troubleshoot negotiations, often collective-bargaining issues. But Numair hadn’t seen it used to address a budget crisis. And where Jeffco’s process deviated from the norm was in the sheer number of parties involved.

“That amps things up a little bit,” he says.

Hammering out a solution

What distinguishes this process from traditional negotiations, Numair explains, is that parties don’t come to the table with specific proposals to accomplish an end. Instead, they openly express their concerns, needs and interests, and try to hammer out a solution acceptable to all.

“Generally speaking,” Numair says, “it’s easier to use this process when there are gains to be had for each side. I think the fact they were able to reach agreement, given the parameters they had to work with, was remarkable.”

The summit convened March 4 and 5 in a conference room at the school- district headquarters. They set aside a third date, March 22, in case they couldn’t get it done in two sessions.

Somehow, they did.

The Jeffco representatives went looking for consensus on millions in cuts that ultimately sliced into employee compensation, eliminated jobs, closed schools, suspended a popular outdoor-lab program and added transportation and activity fees. They tried to do it while keeping students’ interests in the forefront.

Whether the exercise yields solid results won’t be known until weeks from now, when the full school board and employee groups have either approved or rejected the proposal.

Public comment on the proposal begins with a hearing tonight during the Jeffco school-board meetingand continues with forums April 16 and April 30 at locations throughout the district. Unions also will require membership ratification.

Summit participants agreed that whatever budget proposals emerged would be a “package deal” — an all- or-nothing proposition in which individual elements couldn’t be “cherry- picked” for change.

“The unknown,” says Bob Brown, executive director of Jeffco’s Classified School Employees Association, “is whether enough of the school board will feel compelled by what they hear (tonight) to change this package. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but we don’t know what the community is going to say.”

Participants in the budget summit agreed at the outset not to reveal details of the discussions.

But they speak freely about the process and uniformly describe the talks as frank and respectful — and also acknowledge that disagreements sometimes became difficult and emotional.

But “no,” by itself, was never enough to derail the debate. If one of the parties held out on an issue, it became their responsibility to offer an alternative.

“There were heated moments, honest moments,” Stevenson recalls. “At one point, someone made a recommendation, and I said, ‘I can’t go there,’ and started arguing against it. (Numair) looked at me and said, ‘What’s it going to take to get there?’

“At that point, I realized everyone else was already there. So, I said, ‘OK, I can support it.’ ”

Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis, who represented Jeff co’s school administrators association, figures the summit mirrored a process he uses to resolve issues involving parents, teachers and students.

“I like to get all parties in the same room,” DeAngelis says. “I believe the same thing happened here. If you bring all the important players to the table, then lines of communication are open, and it worked well.”

A template out of Maryland

Jeffco modeled its “summit” as a sort of streamlined version of a template used in Montgomery County, Md., where the district has brought multiple parties to the budget table over the past several years — in good times and bad.

The idea surfaced at a national conference on school management and labor relations, hosted by Denver, that began on the day Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the state’s massive funding cuts.

Kerrie Dallman of the Jeffco teachers union, Stevenson and school- board president Dave Thomas attended the conference. They heard the dismal budget news and, at Dallman’s suggestion, considered attacking the problem from a new angle.

One conference session included a presentation from the Maryland district. 

“We looked at each other and said the way we’ve done negotiations is not going to work with this crisis facing us,” Dallman says. “We need to do something different. The summit was something different.

“Under the old way, we’d negotiate a contract separately, and the same for the other (employees). By all coming together, we were working for one common purpose. We were really able to keep the focus on our core mission: educating students.”

The Montgomery County district, based in Rockville, Md., added parent representatives from the local PTA to the mix after the first year of budget talks. Through many meetings, parents were brought up to speed on the intracacies of the budget process.

Getting parents involved

Incoming Jeffco PTA president Keri Lee says she doesn’t feel parents have been left out of the loop. In fact, she notes, within the past year or so individual schools invited parents to make budget recommendations.

But ultimately, district leaders have to make the cuts.

“We’re a big voice,” Lee says, “but not as much as the associations, the teachers union, the classified-staff union. Our chunk is the fact our kids may have bigger class size, or not go to outdoor lab. But these are the groups that are losing staff, cutting teachers and custodians.

“I think they tried the best they could. They made some hard decisions, but they had to.”

Thomas says he considers himself a representative of the public at the meetings, both as school-board president and the parent of three kids who went through Jeffco schools.

“I’m the one who’ll take the heat and be held responsible,” he says. “As of right now, I’m the only person who’ll appear on a ballot this fall.”

Kevin Simpson, Denver Post
Photo: allotrope
 


Budget hearings

Board of education

Dates: Tonight and May 5, during board meetings

Time: 6 p.m.

Site: Education Center, 1829 Denver West Drive, Building 27, fifth floor, Golden

To speak: Sign up on the day of the hearing at 4 p.m. on the fifth floor or before 4 p.m. in the board of education office.

Jeffco public budget forums

April 16: 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Ralston Valley High School, with board president Dave Thomas; at Alameda High School, with board member Jane Barnes; and at Columbine High School, with board member Paula Noonan

April 30: 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Arvada High School, with board member Robin Johnson; and at Evergreen Middle School, with board member Laura Boggs
 

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