You have to wonder if the two new members of the Jefferson County Board of Education go to bed each night thinking, “Be careful what you wish for …”
Just one month into their terms, they and their colleagues on the board are faced with several no-win decisions as the district works to find efficiencies upward of $20 million per year for the next three years. They are faced with tough decisions about closing schools and deciding whether the financial benefits of reconfiguring schools around the county by moving sixth-graders from elementary schools to middle schools will best prepare our kids for the future.
There is little doubt that without either an infusion of money or a significant change in how our schools do business, there are insufficient resources. The district is in the middle of two very significant processes to determine how to utilize its resources. The facilities review process is nearing completion, with what should be predictable results. The committee tasked with looking at facilities has recommended significant changes, and those people most affected by the recommendations are mobilizing to oppose them. At the same time, a multi-layered budget review involving school personnel, parents, students and community members is working its way toward recommendations to save money. Because schools are service-based organizations whose budgets are devoted primarily to staff salaries, the recommendations that emerge will undoubtedly involve either cutting faculty or staff or not implementing new initiatives such as an additional technical education facility for the north end of the county or fully implementing increased graduation requirements.
With voters showing little inclination to pass a mill-levy increase until the economy improves and state and federal resources likely to be much harder to procure, this Board of Education will have to make more than its share of tough choices. It will need to close schools where demographic changes make their continued operations an inefficient use of limited resources. It will need to reconfigure schools to move sixth-graders to middle school. It will need to make tough decisions about what is the proper level of administrative support and determine what school jobs can be allocated to employees who may cost less to hire.
And against that backdrop, these decisions must be made with long-term implications as the highest priority. Decisions must be made in ways that understand both the current limitations in place because of collective bargaining and that when the dust clears and the economy improves will leave our kids the best possible infrastructure to prepare them for the future.
While there may be easier options that delay some of the pain or postpone needed changes, the board owes us thoughtful analysis and a willingness to make tough decisions to position the school district to move forward as best possible. If that is done, it will be much easier to convince voters to provide necessary resources to our schools when the economy improves.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.