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District in Colo. Seeks Advice in Closing Deficit

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Faced with a looming budget deficit and a failed tax-increase proposal, school officials in Jefferson County, Colo., have taken a "grassroots approach" in pursuit of fiscal stability.

Teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, and students met with the county board of education last week to offer suggestions for eliminating a $5.4-million budget deficit. The meeting was the second of two unprecedented conferences held in the Denver suburb.

On Nov. 28, the county's 120 schools closed two hours early so staff, teachers, and management could discuss ways to reduce the district's deficit. Voters had narrowly rejected a $14-million property-tax increase and a $180-million bond issue Nov. 7.

The meetings "allowed for input at the grassroots level," said John T. Ward, executive director of the Jefferson County Education Association. "From that standpoint, they were good."

But Mr. Ward and Kirk P. Brady, the school-board president, said the district still must make difficult decisions. Possible solutions to the deficit include teacher layoffs, increased fees for extracurricular activities, and school consolidation, they said.

"There's just no way that somebody's going to come out of this unhurt," said Vickie Bane, president of the county Parent-Teacher Council.

The board was scheduled to vote on a deficit-reduction plan late last week.

The $5-million shortfall in the district's $304-million budget is not unusual, according to Mr. Brady. He said the district has faced "tight budgets" since the mid-1980's.

He attributed the deficit to rising costs, the state legislature's failure to fund fully Colorado's school-aid formula, the defeat of the district's tax plan at the polls last month, and the slowing of the regional economy.

"I think this is a fairly common situation in Colorado at this point," he said. At least one other district in the state, in Colorado Springs, is also facing a budget deficit. Officials there have notified more than 1,000 employees that they might be laid off.

In Jefferson County, Mr. Brady and others said, the situation differs only because of the level of community participation in addressing the problem.

"This is the first time I can remember when they actually dismissed school" to discuss budgetary problems, Mr. Ward said. According to Mr. Brady, those meetings resulted in "three- or four-thousand pages of recommendations."

Last week, each group was given an opportunity to summarize its recommendations for the board.

"We didn't all agree on the same things," said Ms. Bane. Henry M. Lujan, president of the county administrators association, agreed, and said there was some tension at the meeting. "When you have turf to protect, obviously, you're going to gore the other's ox," he said.

But all agreed the reductions should affect students as little as possible. "The common thread at the meeting was, 'Let's make the cuts as far from the classroom as we can,"' said Mr. Ward.

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