History of Facility Changes in Jeffco – Part I

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During the past year over 10% of Jeffco’s school communities have been threatened with losing their neighborhood school.  This is the first article in a four part series that explores how the school closing process has unfolded in Jeffco over the last decade and what lies ahead.  This first article explores school closing decisions and community engagement from 2008 – 2015.

Many communities were shocked to hear their school was on the closure list presented to the Jeffco School Board January 26th.  This followed the surprise last spring experienced by a dozen communities who found their schools on a closure or consolidation list. Those recommendations came after the board said that schools with enrollment under 300 students were too expensive to operate and should be closed or consolidated to save money.  Last spring’s recommendation was to close Pleasant View and Glennon Heights and consolidate 10 schools (Allendale and Campbell, Kendrick Lakes and Patterson, Parr and Little, Prospect Valley and Kullerstrand, Vivian and Stober) creating five super-sized elementary schools.  Instead of closing schools the board decided to pursue a bond package that would cost tax payers nearly a billion dollars, not fix most buildings, but add second gyms, faux grass and over 5000 classroom seats.

Moving 6th Grade?

Even more confusing was the board’s pronouncement that they would be supporting moving 6th graders out of elementary schools and into middle schools. This made no sense as it would add a dozen schools to the list of those with under 300 student.  Additionally, moving 6th grade to middle school requires tens of millions dollars to add capacity to half of the schools which do not have room for another grade of students. Even more perplexing is why the board would support this multimillion dollar, capacity expanding, expenditure when according to page 26 of the 2015-16 Facilities Condition Assessment there are already over 17,000 empty classroom seats in the district.

How Did We Get Here?

Nearly a decade ago, community input was sought on facility usage after the failure of the 2008 bond and mill that created a “budget crisis”.  After years of declining enrollment and with over 11,000 empty classroom seats, the community rejected tax increases demanding facility changes.  The school board sought community input on facility utilization therefore the Facility Usage Committee was convened and they spent nearly a year learning about the utilization of all district facilities. Over thirty individuals were tasked with studying the use of buildings and creating recommendations for the board to consider.

There were monthly meetings throughout 2009 during which community members learned everything from the condition of heating systems, to the achievement level of each school.

In the spring of 2009, four meetings were held around the district to determine community priorities for the utilization of schools. The committee met throughout the summer and developed a series of potential changes to facility utilization which would optimize space and meet the community priorities.  Ideas ranged from moving 6th grade to middle schools, closing schools, changing school grade configurations, and consolidating schools.  Closing Stober and building a large school on the Vivian campus was among early options.  Feedback was sought on the potential changes through the fall of 2009.  Four standing room only community meetings and thousands of emails and survey answers added additional thoughts to the options.

The committee adjusted their recommendations based on the feedback and presented thirty options to the school board in December 2009.  Those recommendations varied from moving 6th graders to into middle schools in some areas of the district, to closing some elementary and middle schools.  There was a huge outcry against moving 6th grade to middle school so the board took that change off the table pending a district wide study (which has yet to be completed).  That narrowed the options and the final considerations for the board which included closing Martensen, Zerger and Pleasant View elementary schools; and Wheat Ridge, O’Connell, and Arvada middle schools.  

The Arvada City Council wanted to ensure that Arvada Middle school, in a historic building, close to downtown was not closed. They suggested moving Russell elementary students to Arvada middle school, creating a K-8, and closing Russell elementary. That was the only recommendation that didn’t meet strong community resistance.

On January 14, 2010 after hearing hours of testimony and receiving tens of thousands of hour of input, the only major facility change the board approved was closing Russell elementary school and making Arvada middle school a K-8.  This reduced excess capacity by less than 600 classroom seats.

Union Forced School Closures in 2011

In January of 2011, again in response to a “budget crisis”, the board was presented recommendations for closing and consolidating schools. Recommendations again included moving 6th graders to middle school and closing Zerger, Martensen, Pleasant View, Glennon Heights, Thompson and Campbell elementary schools.  The community again voiced opposition to moving 6th graders and closing schools.  On January 20, 2011 the board decided not to close schools or move 6th graders to middle school.  They directed staff to find other ways to become more efficient.

However the board decided to convene closed door negotiating sessions with all of the Jeffco unions, district leadership and two board members.  Behind closed doors, this small group discussed solutions to the 2011 “budget crisis”.  After a couple of closed door sessions the team presented a list of reductions to the board and community in March of 2011 as an all or nothing package.  The board was told all options must be accepted or declined.  The 3% salary reduction and reduced work days Jeffco staff experienced came as part of this package.  Closing Martensen and Zerger elementary schools were also part of the deal, as were raising family fees and adding a transportation fee.

Community members who in January thought they were keeping their neighborhood schools, Martensen and Zerger, learned that these two schools would close at the end of the school year.  Families had very few options for their students as open enrollment round one had closed and most high demand schools were already full.  Parents scrambled, there were few supports for families, and students scattered to multiple schools, breaking up communities.

The board didn’t officially vote to close Martensen and Zerger until the June 2nd 2011 board meeting but everyone knew it was a done deal when it had support of all the unions.  Although the community was promised the buildings would be sold and millions would be saved both schools are still owned by the district. Zerger has been closed and empty since 2011 and Martensen has become the district security headquarters.  Closing Martensen and Zerger removed another 1000 seats from the excess capacity of seats in Jeffco but very little savings were experienced.

2015:  More Facility Changes

Between 2011 and 2015 total district enrollment continued to decline and empty seats in district run schools grew.  In 2015, after months of community engagement both Jefferson High School and Alameda High School became 7-12 schools in attempts to improve achievement and increase community engagement by eliminating the middle school transitions.  At the March 5, 2015 board meeting the vote was unanimous to approve these well-developed plans.  In addition, the board voted to move Stevens elementary into Wheat Ridge Middle School permanently and Stein elementary students to O’Connell for the 2016-17 school year.  Sobesky students moved into the Stevens building taking another 400 seats off the excess capacity list.

In 2015, the board also voted 3-2 directing staff to build a new K-6 in northwest Arvada to handle the rapid growth of students moving into the new subdivisions. The board had directed the staff to use one time excess reserves to be able to pay cash for the new school.  After many conversations it was decided to use the property at Candelas, closest to the largest developments.  This decision would negate the seat reductions and the number of empty seats continued to grow as enrollment decreased across Jeffco.

Union Backed School Board Again Targets Closing Schools

In November of 2015, the union backed school board was elected and facilities decisions were among the first reversed by the new board.  One of their first moves was changing the enrollment plans for the school in the Candelas area to be a K-8 versus K-5 and add onto Sierra Elementary.  In order to pay for this, the board approved debt, COPs, (Certification of Participation) which will cost taxpayers $78 million to payback.  Funds will come from the district operating revenue, money which should be in classrooms.

Next, the board approved Bradford Elementary schools becoming a K-8 school (change from K-6) ignoring the fact that both middle schools in the Chatfield articulation area had excess capacity and another middle school was not needed.  Deer Creek was at 60% capacity and Falcon Bluffs was at 75% capacity.

With these changes and continued district wide enrollment declines, facilities reports continue to show over 15,000 empty seats across the district.

Upcoming articles will detail actions by this new board and which schools may be next on the school closure list.

Jeffco School Board Considers Closing Schools

shutterstock_89934235Closing schools is always an emotional and contentious issue. Breaking apart communities as the district did when closing Zerger and Martensen is hard on everyone involved. While some say schools must close as enrollment declines, others say closings should be based on school performance, as Denver is now implementing. We can all agree these decisions are especially harmful when the community is surprised, not engaged and has no time to propose alternatives as Arvada did when creating Arvada K-8 and moving the Russell students to that school.

The Harmon, Rupert, Mitchell (HRM) Jeffco School board has made school closing conversations this year particularly divisive. Creating a fake “budget crisis” by asking the district to find $25 million for compensation increases and funding them with cuts rather than using retirement savings and underspending, seems to have pitted staff against staff and community against community.  In addition, the recommendations are driven by the board’s adamant direction to move 6th graders to middle school regardless of the negative impact on student performance.  A choice Jeffco has consistently rejected and which would cost tens of millions to implement. Add to that the proposed schools to be closed were announced on January 26th just days before choice enrollment was to close and the decisions are set to be made February 9th giving the community less than two weeks to provide input.

How does this process in any way honor and respect any of the communities? We know it breaks district policies.  Surprising the Peck, Swanson and Pennington school communities is against policy FCB and FCB-R which require at least a six month evaluation & review process. Certainly this rushed process does not allow for district wide conversations where alternatives might emerge.

We have learned there have been a few secret meetings at select schools. We know from media coverage, Peck and Stober held community meetings but only parents and neighbors were invited. Rumors are Pennington and Swanson also had gatherings and that there was a meeting of gifted and talented supporters at Wheat Ridge high school. We also heard there was a meeting at Vivian, one of the most underutilized schools in the district but not on the closing list this round.

Where were the meetings posted? Certainly not on the front page of the district website as would be expected for conversations of this magnitude. They also weren’t posted on the board’s webpage. Were there three or more board members at any of these meetings? If so, has the board broken the sunshine laws? How can there be such secrecy around decisions which will affect nearly every family in Jeffco over the next two years?

There seem to have been no meetings at Everitt Middle school or  North Arvada Middle school which would become homes to all these 6th graders a year ahead of when the board promised the first moves would be made. There also seem to have been no meetings at any of the other elementary schools which might lose their 6th graders next year. Where is the promised transparency and increased community engagement? Why haven’t there been any district wide meetings? Why wasn’t there a community committee to review recommendations as required by district policy FCB-R? We need only look back to 2009 to learn how to engage the community in conversations about facilities.

History Lesson

In 2008, a bipartisan school board asked then Superintendent Cindy Stevenson to create a community committee to review facility needs and make recommendations to the school board.  Nearly 50 community members spent a year learning about the condition, utilization, achievement results and student demographics for every school in the district.  In August of 2009, the committee made some initial recommendations.  Multiple community meetings were held to address and discuss excess capacity and high use of temp buildings, (which are expensive to maintain.)  Potential school closures were part of these thorough community meetings that took place over a twelve-month period.  Thousands attended these community meetings. At the end of 2009 a list of possible school closures, consolidations, and grade reconfigurations were made to the school board. City leaders were engaged in the conversations and recommendations from around the community were included in ideas presented to the school board.

These community meetings provided feedback about how students in center programs would be effected. The board gained a deeper understanding of how to mitigate effects on at risk students and families. Ideas were put forth that staff and the board had not considered. All meetings were listed on the district website, all handouts and information were available to everyone in the community. The entire process was TRANSPARENT.

Why then has this HRM school board not been equally transparent?  Why are they having secret meetings? Why are they not engaging the whole community so we can have the best ideas possible?  Why are they pitting staff against staff, community against community?  Why not use the additional money from the state and the underspend from previous budgets for compensation increases and not create a fake “budget crisis”?  Our communities deserve better and more importantly our students deserve better.

 

Jeffco Targets Poor Neighborhood Schools for Closure

shutterstock_215271085On February 9th, the Jeffco School board will be voting on closing five elementary schools and one option school. It appears as if this board might be targeting some of our most at risk families. Three of the five elementary schools are Title One schools and four of the five schools have over 54% of children on Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) meaning they serve low income students. These schools also serve a high percentage of minority students. Why are Jeffco’s most vulnerable children being targeted? Reading the article in Chalkbeat regarding school closings, they clearly point out this unfair targeting, a fact most other news outlets ignored. The message clearly communicated during the January 26th school board meeting was that, “those schools have a high percentage of transient families”. Does that mean they deserve less respect than other communities? What a sad and disgusting message to be sending to our community. Regardless of the reasons families have to move, one stable factor that benefits many students is their neighborhood school. So why is this board closing schools in low-income areas? Do they think these parents are less prepared or able to object?

Does the board not realize that when they close a Title One school (Pennington, Swanson and Pleasant View), these students are now forced into schools which are farther from their homes and aren’t Title One schools?  Each of these students also loses nearly $1000 to support their education. Has the board given any consideration to the hardships they will add to these families’ lives? Have they considered what the new boundaries would be for the twelve schools that these students will attend? How will they break up communities when one school sends students to three different schools?

Transportation

What about transportation? Many low income families don’t even have a car or only have one car to get their children to school and family members to work. A school within walking distance is vital to many low income families. Having to get their children to a school that is farther away is that much more challenging. Don’t these families have enough burdens and challenges without having school distance be another one?

Criteria for School Closings

Is the age of a school a good criteria for closing a school? According to the board’s logic, every house in my neighborhood should be demolished because they are all over 50 years old. Has the board considered how much has been invested in each of these schools over the last ten years? Perhaps if the Jeffco board wasn’t so busy working to raise our property taxes (and then penalizing us when we don’t vote for that tax-increase), they could be making decisions about maintaining schools. As homeowners, we have to budget for home improvements. We, the taxpayers, should expect the district to do the same. Instead, they are considering spending $25 million to add classrooms to middle schools, which put even more elementary schools at risk of closing.

Why does Jeffco ignore school performance as a criteria for closing schools? Stober Elementary, which is on the chopping block is a high performing school. Pleasant View and Peck are making huge strides in improving student achievement. Shouldn’t these facts be considered? What about Swanson and Pennington? Both schools serve autistic children and they are both slated to close. Where will those students go as none of the recommended schools have ASD centers? Honestly, what is the criteria for closing a school? Denver Public Schools has a thorough list of criteria for closing schools. This criteria was developed over time with a lot of community feedback because school closings impact an entire neighborhood. Three of the schools on the Jeffco list of closures have never been targeted before, so these communities have been completely caught off-guard. The board is saying they will make this decision on February 9th, which is not nearly enough time for these communities to understand why they are facing closures. Is that thoughtful? Where is the community engagement?

Poor Neighborhoods Used as a Criteria for School Closure

Apparently a school in a poor neighborhood is a criteria in Jeffco. Four out of the five schools proposed for closing have a high percentage of students who qualify for FRL, meaning their families are at or below the poverty level. In fact, the bulk of Jeffco’s smallest schools have a high percentage of FRL students and a higher than district average of minority students. But looking at enrollment data, why wasn’t Bradford Intermediate targeted? Bradford Intermediate is well below 300 students and is projected to lose even more over the next five years. It is also running at 64% utilization. There are two nearby middle schools (Deer Creek and Falcon Bluffs) with more than enough capacity to take the 6-8th grade students that are at Bradford Intermediate. Deer Creek Middle School is at 59% utilization and Falcon Bluffs is at 75% utilization. Worse, between Bradford Primary and Bradford Intermediate, there are two principals and one vice-principal. That is a lot of expensive administration. Only 4% of Bradford students qualify for FRL and its minority population is 9.7%. Is it not on the school closure list because it is in an affluent, non-minority neighborhood?

What about Colorow, Dutch Creek, Red Rocks or Coal Creek Canyon? These schools have low enrollment numbers, a lower percentage of minorities and a lower percentage of FRL students as outlined in the chart below.

Lastly, what about the new school, Three Rivers, in the Candelas area? That school has a planned build-out cost of $32 million dollars and was projected to open with an enrollment of 432 students. The new school board decided to change boundaries (again with minimal community discussions) and now enrollment is projected to be 275 students. Didn’t this same board use enrollment at 300 or less as a cut-off for potentially closing a school? Home prices in that area start at $400,000 and go up to fully custom homes. Candelas does not sound like a low income area. But this area will get a brand new $32 million school that is scheduled to open with an enrollment that is less than each of four of the five schools now on the chopping block in low income areas.

Why is the Board Targeting Low Income Schools?

Why target Title One schools, why target low income schools, why target high percentage minority population schools? It appears that Jeffco targeted neighborhoods that they hope will be the least resistance. The board knows if they target more affluent neighborhoods, they are more likely to hear it from the parents. Struggling families are more likely to have less time to be more engaged because they are juggling multiple jobs and other hardships. Is that why the board is fast tracking these decisions? The board has communicated that having enrollment of 300 students or less is a potential criteria to close a school, but it sounds as if it is the combination of enrollment of 300 or less, a high percentage of FRL and/or a high percentage of minority students may be the real criteria.

When previous boards have discussed closing schools, there was a year long process with packed community meetings. This board heard these proposals on January 26th and the decisions are queued-up to be voted on at the February 9th meeting. Hardly the transparency and level of community engagement we were promised when the clean slate was swept into office in 2015.

It is never easy having to discuss closing schools but these are the communities that need the stability of a neighborhood school. These are the schools and families that need bridges to success, not another mountain to climb. Our job as a community is to help those in need. It is time to tell the school board they need an equitable plan of action. It is time for the school board to develop a transparent process with clear criteria for closing schools.

Schools Under or Near 300 Students (click on image to view larger)

Schools Under 300

 

 

Is Jeffco’s Clean Slate Board Breaking Policy Again?

In spring 2016, thousands of families discovered the new Jeffco school board was considering closing their neighborhood schools.  This was not only a shock, but it came out of left field as there had been no community engagement in the development of the facilities plan.  In comparion to 2009, Jeffco spent thousands of hours engaging the community when the district presented its major facility plan to the community.  In spring of 2006, two thirds of the community engagement meetings were scheduled after summer break started and most communities found it hard to get the word out because so many families were on vacation.  Less than 500 people attended meetings regarding the new facility plan and around 1500 responded to the online survey.  Not great numbers considering there are 86,000 students in Jeffco.  When the community questioned the “Clean Slate’s” commitment to transparency, community engagement and accountability the board changed the plan and promised to become more transparent.

Trust in Broken Again

Just before Christmas break the “Clean Slate” board broke  community trust again, announcing that they would place a Superintendent search on their January 12th agenda. Again, the day before a long holiday the board announced they would be acting on changing the district leadership.  No matter what your opinion is about the performance of Superintendent Dan McMinimee we all clearly see this action breaks promises of transparency, accountability and community engagement.

Will Board Policy be Broken?

The Board’s Governance process number two (GP2) prohibits the board from taking action on an item the first time it is on their discussion agenda. And yet the board’s January 12th agenda shows the board is poised to decide on and vote on starting a Superintendent search the first time this item is on their public agenda.  Why aren’t they waiting until their February meeting to vote on this topic?  Why not give the community a chance to weigh in on the topic?  Would they find that the business community has come to trust Dan McMinimee?  Do they know that principals who are working hard to improve achievement appreciate the flexibility Dan has provided to meet the needs of their communities?  Might they find that teachers actually respect that Dan has reallocated resources and teachers have seen higher raises under his tenure than in the previous four years?  It clearly demonstrates that they just do not want to listen to the community.

The board has had two executive sessions discussing the topic. Those are the meetings that are held behind closed doors prohibiting the community from participating or even listening. In fact, the board’s first closed session on the topic was held in Colorado Springs at the Broadmoor. That is right, at taxpayers’ expense (to the tune of $3000 per person), the Jeffco board held a closed session meeting in Colorado Springs to discuss district leadership. Hardly the open, transparent process the clean slate board promised during their campaign.

Worse, while the board has spent over six hours discussing whether to keep the Superintendent or not there has been absolutely no community engagement on the topic. The previous board voted unanimously, (yes, all five previous school board members voted to amend the governance process) to ensure that the board didn’t vote on an item at the first meeting it was on a discussion agenda. This board has violated that policy in the past but to change the district leadership without any community input goes against their promises of engaging the community.  Again, the lines of listening to the community have been cut, the trust is again broken.

Why is the board in such a rush to start a Superintendent search process?  Do they have someone in mind to run the district?  Worse, isn’t there a long list of schools in desperate need of repairs?  Couldn’t this search money be better utilized to say fix leaking roofs?  Shouldn’t this search money be used to hire literacy coaches or mental health professionals?  Or wouldn’t the funds be better spent raising teacher salaries?  Why don’t they want to listen to the community?

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions because all of the board conversations have been behind closed doors. Has the board once said that any of the monitoring reports provided by the Superintendent were incorrect?  No. Have they provided feedback on things they would like to see Dan do that he has refused to do?  No. Has the board set a direction for the district that Dan has refused to follow?  No. Has the board even set goals that Dan has not met? No. In fact the board has endorsed Vision 2020 which is the guiding plan for the district, created under Dan’s leadership, with the engagement of both district staff and the community.  The board awarded Dan more of his bonus money than the previous Superintendent and has given him positive feedback.

Policies are in place not only to give the board the opportunity to thoroughly discuss an issue, but it also gives the public time with weigh in as well.  And since this decision impacts the schools our children attend, impacts the teachers who teach our children, yes we need to have time to understand the issues and address any questions.  Again, why don’t they want to listen to the community?

So what are we seeing? Is this retribution for the failure of the bond and mill levy override?  Is this change in leadership payback to the union for backing and paying for the recall election?  We hope this board will slow this process and honor their commitments of transparency, accountability and community engagement before turning the district leadership upside down.  Will this board continue to break community trust?

Is Jeffco’s Clean Slate Board Breaking Policy Again?