Cutting off district funding to a popular gifted and talented program at Wheat Ridge High School is one of the contentious steps Jeffco Public Schools has proposed to cope with its budget crisis.

The gifted and talented center program enrolls 128 of the school’s 1,200 students, according to district officials. About three-quarters of those gifted students choice in from other district high schools, a sign of the program’s stature.

Some parents say the center at the high school has been critical not just to their children’s academic success, but to their social and emotional well-being.

More than 700 community members have signed an online petition opposing the elimination of the Wheat Ridge High-based program. Numerous signers wrote that its helped their children overcome social problems, gain a sense of belonging and get needed help.

The Jefferson County district, the state’s second largest, is considering more than $20 million in spending cuts, including the closure of five elementary schools. District officials say the cuts are needed to keep a school board pledge to improve teacher salaries after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

In what is expected to be an emotional meeting Thursday, the school board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could pull certain items out and continue funding them.

Besides cutting Wheat Ridge High School’s two gifted and talented teachers for a savings of $150,000, the district is also considering the elimination of four gifted and talented resource teachers who work at schools throughout the district. That cut, which would save $350,000, would leave 12 roving gifted and talented teachers in the 86,000-student district.

The proposed budget cuts wouldn’t affect gifted and talented classroom teachers at the 15 elementary and middle schools with gifted and talented centers. Wheat Ridge houses the only gifted and talented high school center in the district.

District officials have said Wheat Ridge High School would be allowed to assume the cost of the two teachers if it wanted to continue the gifted program, but noted the school already pays for some expenses associated with the program itself. Principal Griff Wirth could not be reached for comment.

While some of the district’s other proposed cuts would disproportionately affect low-income students — including the  elementary school closures — that is not the case with the potential gifted and talented cuts.

That’s because Jeffco’s gifted and talented program, like many elsewhere in Colorado and the nation, skews toward white middle- and upper-income students.

Only 12 percent of the district’s 11,500 gifted and talented students receive free or discounted school meals — a proxy for poverty — compared to 32 percent of students districtwide. Students of color make up 19 percent of the district’s gifted and talented pool and 33 percent of students overall.

Parent Jaime Peters, who is also an elementary teacher in the district, said the Wheat Ridge center program has been life-changing for her 10th-grade son, who is both gifted and on the autism spectrum. It’s vaulted him from average grades to straight As, helped him take on leadership activities and most important, make friends.

“It’s been huge,” she said.

A position paper from the National Association for Gifted Children says research hasn’t shown that gifted children face more mental health problems than non-gifted children. Still, it notes that characteristics associated with giftedness can be risk factors and that some studies have shown that gifted students are less likely to ask for help.

Peters, who also has an eighth-grade son who’s gifted, said that gifted students can’t just be slotted into honors classes or International Baccalaureate programs and expected to thrive.

She said of her sons, “They’re two years ahead academically and two years behind socially and that seems to be the thing with (gifted and talented) kids.”