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Interest high in Jeffco facilities choices

People who worry about parent and citizen involvement in schools might be heartened by what’s happened in Jefferson County over the last few weeks.

Four public meetings on a complicated set of school closure and pupil reassignment options drew about 3,500 people, and Jeffco Schools officials estimate they’re received more than 1,000 e-mails and had more than 500 online surveys filled out. They also received about 50 old-fashion letters.

Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who attended Jeffco schools and has been in administrative positions there since 1985, said, “I haven’t seen this kind of turnout in a long time.”

The focus of all this parent and citizen attention is a complicated set of options for school closures and realignments that’s been prepared by a 30-member Facilities Usage Committee that was created by the school board last spring.

Facing stable enrollment and population shifts in some neighborhoods, and feeling the cold breath of future state budget cuts on its neck, the district wanted to see what sort of savings it could wring out of its buildings.

Given the sort of community anxiety that can be sparked by even mentioning school closures, the tone of the public meetings and other feedback has been civil and informed. Options that drew the largest amount of comment were moving 6th graders to middle schools and closing some middle schools.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Stevenson, recalling past public meetings on other issues that had “lots of conflict.”

“I’m really proud of our county … people were very respectful and thoughtful.”

Phillip Infelise, co-chair of the committee, said, “I thought the turnout was absolutely fantastic. [It’s] a very positive sign that the folks are taking the committee’s work seriously.”

Good feelings notwithstanding, the time for tough choices is approaching quickly.

“People are really committed to their schools … but there are hard decisions ahead,” Stevenson said.

The full committee meets next on Nov. 30 to begin narrowing the list of options it will present to the school board on Jan. 14. Both Stevenson and Infelise expect the current set of options – up to 45, depending on how you classify them – to be narrowed to between 10 and 15. (Several options have multiple variations.)

“That’s what we’re going to try to do, to get our committee to focus on 12-15 options” that are most viable, more cost effective and least disruptive, Infelise said.

He told EdNews that committee leadership already has decided to pull from consideration options whose savings payback is longer than four years. (Those 10 options included moving some preschool and gifted and talented programs, a couple of plans to partner elementary schools and a $13.8 million proposal to close Stober and Vivian elementary schools in Wheat Ridge and move students to a new building on the Vivian site.)

Infelise said the message to committee members is that during the Nov. 30 meeting “we’re going to relook at every option on the list.”

Referring back to the public hearings, Infelise said, “People do realize that something has to give from a budget perspective, but we cannot be insensitive to the fact that people are making a case against some of the committee’s recommendations.” He said it might take another meeting in December to finish winnowing the options.

Reflecting on the public hearings, Infelise said moving 6th graders to middle school “would be on the top of my list as one of the more controversial issues.” But, he added, “The public may not realize there are already good, viable examples of 6th graders being in middle school.” (Middle schools in Jeffco’s western, mountain areas have 6th graders.)

But, both Stevenson and Infelise acknowledged that parents raised a legitimate concern about moving 6th graders in the 2010-11 school year and that the timing issue will need to be considered before final decisions are made.

There clearly are two sides to the middle school issue, as demonstrated during the hearings. Some witnesses urged moving 6th graders as a way to “save” middle schools otherwise suggested for closure.

The school board and the district face a tight timeline if they want to realize building savings in the 2010-11 budget. If the board decides to close schools, it will have to act quickly after receiving the committee’s recommendations, Infelise noted. “In some cases we will have to move on some of these recommendations quicker than the public might like.”

Phillip Infelise, cochair of 2009 Jeffco facilities committee
Phillip Infelise, cochair of 2009 Jeffco facilities committee

The timeline also will be tight for parents who may want to avoid forced moves by putting their children into choice schools or programs. The deadline for first-round choice applications is in late January, before the board may have taken final action. That’s “a circumstance we can’t avoid,” Infelise said.

The committee plans to give the board a “menu” of facilities options, not one take-it-or-leave it recommendation. There’s also no firm figure for what the district wants to save in facilities. Rather, possible facilities savings will be considered as part of overall district budget cutting for 2010-11. Stevenson said right now Jeffco is planning to cut $18 to $20 million plus use $30 million from reserves.

The final decision will be in the hands of a five-member school board that has two brand-new members, Paula Noon and Laura Boggs; a third member who’s been in office for only a few months, Robin Johnson, and a new president, Dave Thomas.

The facilities discussion is something of a new experience for Jeffco, which for decades had to cope with growth. “I don’t think we’ve ever done this,” said Stevenson. In the past “we were worried about having space for everybody.” (In earlier years that problem was solved partly by extensive use of portable classrooms. Getting rid of some or all of those is among the options under consideration.)

The district, the state’s largest, has enrollment of about 84,000, down from nearly 90,000 at the start of the decade. (It had about 75,000 students at the beginning of the 1990s.) The student population is projected to remain flat for several years and then rise slightly through 2020-21.

There are 94 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, 17 high schools and 35 other facilities, including 13 charters, in the district. According to district documents, average capacity use is 91 percent for elementaries, 72 percent for middle schools and 88 percent for high schools, but that varies widely for individual schools.

District projections for enrollment trends show 19 schools stable, 72 schools declining and 40 schools growing.

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