Closing 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.
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.