Furloughs cause missed opportunity for JeffCo students

“Time is already so short, and they’re already doing so much with so little,” Tonya Aultman-Bettridge said as she reflected on the school staff.

She is standing in front of Semper Elementary School in Westminster, where her son Will started kindergarten many years ago and is now nearing the end of 6th grade.  The school is empty now by design – spring break – but will close again April 11 for a furlough day.

“Even one missed day can be a huge deal to have to make up,” the mother said.

“It really cuts down on instruction time, and then the curriculum gets cut down,” Mandi Marcantonio said of the upcoming furlough day for Jefferson County.

She is standing in front of Arvada West High School, which is also closed for spring break, and like Semper, will close its doors April 11.

“We don’t learn as much as we probably should,” the student said.

Will and Mandi are two of more than 85,000 JeffCo students who will miss two days of school this year to remedy the district’s budget woes.  Another JeffCo furlough day is scheduled May 4. 

The cancelled days add up to more than a million school hours lost for JeffCo students.

“For me, what a furlough day means is a day that my child is not in school.  It’s a missed educational opportunity,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

Mandi, a senior enrolled in the school’s Cadet Teacher Program, knows the impact furlough days have on those in the profession she plans to join.

“I know teacher salaries were cut as well and they don’t deserve that at all.  They definitely deserve more than they get,” said Mandi.

Mandi and Aultman-Bettridge both plan to attend the Rally for Our Students’ Future at the State Capitol, April 11.  The Colorado Education Association and Jefferson County Education Association are sponsoring the statewide school funding rally along with several other community groups including Colorado PTA and Great Education Colorado to coincide with the furlough closure of Colorado’s largest school district.

“At the rally, I just hope legislators understand how tight school budgets are,” Mandi said.  “I notice class sizes get bigger every year.  Half the time we run out of desks for students.  Teachers sometimes have up to 40 kids in class and that makes it harder to learn as well as teach in that environment.”

Aultman-Bettridge agrees that larger classes, a direct result of school staff cuts coupled with the state’s increasing student enrollment, are particularly difficult for a child and the teacher.

“My son is in a classroom of almost 35 students now, where, three years ago, it was 25 in the sixth grade,” Aultman-Bettridge said.  “I see his teacher struggle keeping on top of that many different students and all of their educational and individual needs.”

While Aultman-Bettridge said she loves the school, and that every teacher Will had was a wonderful, committed educator, she observes the school “just feels different” under the strain of continual budget cuts.

“You can feel it in the air that there’s more tension, teachers are feeling more stress, that they’re underappreciated,” said Aultman-Bettridge.  “I do think over the past three years I’ve become more concerned.”

Mandi is likewise concerned about her future as a teacher.

“I have second-guessed myself all the time about whether or not teaching is something that is actually going to last for me, because I’m worried I might not get a job when I get out of school, or whether or not I’ll be able to keep it if they cut me at my position,” said Mandi. 

Mandi is not backing down from her career choice, but admits “it’s definitely a risky field to be getting into right now.”

In the teacher cadet program, Mandi teaches at the middle school she used to attend and sees another impact of the district’s budget cuts.

“They cut so many classes from there,” Mandi said of her former school.  “When I saw the registration I couldn’t believe the classes that had disappeared from the four years I had been there.  It was just unbelievable to me.”

Aultman-Bettridge said Will has benefited from two programs perpetually on the budget chopping block: school band and the county’s renowned Outdoor Lab science program.  But she added “a constant, never-ending fundraising battle” waged by families is too often what keeps many important education programs alive.

“Without a sustainable plan for decent education funding, those types of opportunities aren’t going to be around,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

“People just need to start putting education first.  It’s always the first thing that gets cut,” said Mandi.  “People think, ‘Oh, not a big deal – they’ll still get through school, they’ll still graduate.’ That’s true to some extent, but I don’t necessarily feel as prepared for college as I should be.

“I don’t feel like I have had the tools that I need because of the cuts,” Mandi added.

Aultman-Bettridge is also worried Will’s future schools won’t have the resources they need to provide the investment in his education.

“It’s a pretty deep, systemic issue in this state, and we really have to take a hard look at what our priorities are, and where we’re going to spend our resources and invest our dollars for our future,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

“We’re going to be in a situation where we don’t have business attracted to the state because we don’t have an educated workforce,” Aultman-Bettridge continued.  “You can give them all the tax breaks that you want, but an aerospace engineering company isn’t going to locate here if they don’t have an educated workforce to hire.”

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