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.