Stevenson defends proposed tax increase at community chat

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By Vicky Gits

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told an audience of parents and school administrators Aug. 22 that revenue from the district’s proposed property-tax increase would not fund an increase in teacher retirement packages.

"The public employees pay 8 percent (to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association),” Stevenson said. “The district contribution goes up according to state law. The district contributes 15.65 percent, or about $5 million a year. It's true that is going up. That is in the budget.”

The district’s contribution to PERA is dictated by state law, and the district has no control over it, Stevenson said.

The average retirement package is $34,700 a year, Stevenson said. "None of the mill-levy override goes to PERA," she said.

Stevenson made the comments at one of 18 coffee meetings the district is staging for parents and interested parties to discuss "important school and district issues" between Aug. 22 and Nov. 14 around Jefferson County. (The schedule is at www.jeffcopublicschools.org.)

About 50 people turned out for the question-and-answer session in the Columbine High School library.

In an Aug. 23 phone interview the day after the meeting, school board member Laura Boggs disputed Stevenson's claims. Boggs said the district does have the authority to control retirement costs but isn't doing enough in the salary-negotiation process.

"The point is, our contributions to retirement accounts are out of control," she said. By 2017, the district is set to contribute 20.15 percent to retirement costs, Boggs said.

The $34,700 is not the average annual retirement income for a school employee but for all employees in the PERA system, Boggs said. She did not know the amount for the average teacher.

At the start of the district Q-and-A on Aug. 22, everyone in the room briefly introduced themselves, at Stevenson's request. About half were mothers and fathers of children in various South Jeffco schools, while the other half were school administrators and teachers. School board member Jill Fellman also was in the room.

Rattling off numbers and statistics without notes, Stevenson gave a passionate defense of Jeffco Public Schools. She praised the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff, including bus drivers and teachers, whom she observed in action for the first three days of the going-back-to-school process. Audience members were invited to submit questions on index cards; Stevenson chose which of them to answer.

Stevenson warned the audience that if the district fails to win the tax increases, it will be forced to make much more serious sacrifices in terms of teachers and programs because it has already made painful reductions in the last two years.

Without the increase, the district will have to give up nearly 600 full-time employees in 2013-14, including some 400 teachers, she said.

Schools would face elimination of many non-academic elements, such as librarians, drama, art and music teachers, physical education and language classes, she said.

Anything not strictly related to graduation requirements would be a target for elimination, Stevenson said.

Columbine High principal Frank DeAngelis said there could be fewer choices in general, including a reduction in advanced-placement classes. At Columbine, the jobs of one counselor and a campus supervisor would also probably be on the line, he said.

Pat Sandos, principal of Ken Caryl Middle School, said the elective offerings in the school system attracted him to work in Jefferson County. Electives are important because they help keep students involved and excited about school, he said.

Ken Caryl Middle School, with about 600 students, could face losing between three and four teachers, Stevenson said. The average class size would go from 27 to 31, she said.

Facing a $43 million budget gap next year and long-range budget pressures brought about by the economic downturn, Jeffco Public Schools is asking the public for a two-part tax increase.

The requests will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot as questions 3A and 3B. The first is a property-tax increase that would generate an additional $39 million a year toward operational expenses. The second will allow the district to borrow $99 million for building maintenance.

Together the measures would increase property taxes on a $250,000 home by about $126 per year, which would be offset by a $90 reduction associated with paying off a previous bond issue. The effective increase for the owner of the above home would be about $36 per year.

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.