GOLDEN – After ten months of work by a citizens’ committee and more than three hours of public comment that stretched late into the night on Thursday, Jefferson County school board members voted to close a single elementary school.
The decision brought cheers from the hundreds of audience members who filled a 320-seat capacity board room and overflowed into three conference rooms upstairs. But board members ruefully acknowledged that it will do little to ease a budget gap projected at up to $50 million for 2010-11.
“I totally understand your excitement,” board member Robin Johnson told the crowd. “This does put us in a very difficult position now as to how we are going to make up this money.”
The sole closure will be Russell Elementary School in Arvada, a move expected to save $684,000. Those students next fall will attend Arvada Middle School, six to seven blocks away, which will become a K-8.
The board also voted to sell or dispose of 120 temporary classrooms at schools less than 92 percent full and to shift two preschool programs into nearby elementary schools. Altogether, the three actions are expected to save $1.27 million.
Yet even if board members had voted to close all four schools on the table Thursday, Jeffco’s expected savings was little more than $3 million, board president Dave Thomas told reporters afterward.
“The facilities stuff we were looking at tonight wouldn’t have fixed that problem anyway,” he said.
“This board came to the realization that – when we listened to all the community members, the anguish that this would have caused and the disruption in the community – we’re going to find a way to balance our budget in another way.”
Pleading, bargaining to save schools
Voters last November rejected a tax increase for Jeffco schools, prompting district officials to launch a series of community meetings to talk about budget issues.
Enrollment in Colorado’s largest school district has been declining for much of the past decade, which means less state funding and more empty seats. In March, a 30-member committee began studying possible closures.
Its final report, issued last month, called for the closure of eight schools based on criteria such as how full the buildings are and whether neighborhood families are attending or going elsewhere. This past weekend, in a special Saturday meeting, school board members cut that list to four.
Thursday, supporters of those four schools – O’Connell Middle School in Lakewood, Wheat Ridge Middle School, Pleasant View Elementary in Golden and Russell Elementary or Arvada Middle School – came out in righteous force.
They spoke in English and Spanish, showed slides and waved signs, pleaded for more time for their schools to attract more students and threatened their families would desert the district.
A group of students from Wheat Ridge Middle School said they were afraid of what would happen if their school closed and they were sent to Jefferson High School, which would become a 7-12 school.
“We would be sent to Jefferson High School far sooner than we feel comfortable,” said Martin Esparza, 12, a 7th grader. “Our fear is that the peer pressure of older students to do drugs, join gangs, become sexually active and conform will be hard to resist.”
Lakewood’s mayor, police chief and a city council member urged the board to keep open O’Connell Middle School, where they’ve raised $600,000 toward opening a Boys and Girls Club. They also pledged $130,000 annually toward landscaping costs at O’Connell.
“O’Connell deeply matters to us,’ said Mayor Bob Murphy.
Arvada city officials bargained with the board. Faced with the closure of either Russell Elementary or Arvada Middle School, they reluctantly offered up Russell. They also agreed to share the costs of appraising the Russell property for possible sale. Its value is estimated at $2 million to $3 million.
“We detest closing Russell,” said City Manager Craig Kocian. “But there is greater community interest in keeping Arvada Middle School open.”
A few of the 45 people who signed up to speak booed or sniped at board members. Most were respectful and polite.
Seeking solutions for budget gap, excess seats
All of the schools up for closure are swimming in excess space – Arvada Middle School is 40 percent full, Wheat Ridge Middle is 53 percent full, O’Connell is 54 percent full.
The closure of Russell Elementary, which had the highest utilization rate at 68 percent, will eliminate 434 seats. That doesn’t go far in a district with more than 11,000 empty chairs.
“To every person in this district – wake up,” board member Laura Boggs told the ultimately happy crowd on Thursday. “We have too many seats for the number of children that we currently have and that we project to have … we need to fix the capacity problem in our district.”
Jeffco’s budget numbers are similarly daunting.
Thomas, the board president, said the district will pull $30 million from reserves to ease the gap next school year. That leaves an estimated $18 million to $20 million in cuts after Thursday’s decision.
“We have some really difficult decisions to make about budget,” Thomas said. “Because 85 percent of the school district’s budget is salary and benefits, it means we have to deal with salaries, we have to deal with how many teachers we have and discuss things that nobody likes to discuss like furlough days.”
But he said he’s heard from “numerous” teachers and other employees that those kinds of cuts are preferable to closing schools.
“They were willing to make sacrifices because they didn’t want the schools closed,” Thomas said.
He said he had not talked with Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County teachers’ union, about the issue.
Dallman, who addressed board members early in the evening Thursday, urged them to “provide us the leadership this district deserves in a time of crisis” by putting a tax increase on the November ballot.
The district “is trying to run a champagne program on a beer budget,” she told the board.
Some board members seemed receptive to a tax hike proposal. Others urged community members to use the energy they brought to Thursday’s meeting to come up with creative solutions for the financial fix.
None of the five apppear to believe the hard work is done.
“I view this as the start of a process that will be ongoing for years to come,” Thomas said.
Click here to read prior Ed News stories about Jeffco’s facilities issues.
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.