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