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Commentary: Deaf school dream turning to nightmare?

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

There’s a small but significant drama playing out in Lakewood. It involves a multi-million dollar state grant, a school for deaf children, a model example of district and charter school facility collaboration, and a newly formed neighborhood group.

The drama has continued to build at city and neighborhood meetings in Lakewood, and will continue to unfold prior to a decision by the city at a mandated neighborhood meeting on April 3rd.

Here’s the story. The Rocky Mountain Deaf School (RMDS) is a K-12 Jeffco charter school founded in 1997 by parents of deaf children who did not believe that the traditional school setting met the unique needs of their children. As a very small school (currently 60 kids enrolled and at capacity) with little to no facility support, RMDS has either been forced or elected to move locations four times over 15 years to find a better place to educate kids.

They’ve never been able to call home a location that has come close to what one would consider an appropriate school, especially not one for children with special needs. Their current location is a small and inadequate storefront property in a strip mall in Golden. Their neighbors include a bar and a hookah shop.

They have no gym, no playground, and no space for an auditorium. Additionally, their roof leaks and the electrical system is substandard, actually causing a small fire recently. Not the most desirable facility or location for any school.

RMDS has struggled desperately over the years to find some way to improve their facility situation and was finally rewarded for its tenacity. After two attempts, RMDS secured a $13 million Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant last June. BEST grants are designed for schools and districts with significant facility needs and lack of local tax support to make facility upgrades, renovations or to build a new facility.

RMDS fit the bill perfectly, and the BEST board agreed by awarding the school the dollars desperately needed to build a new 47,000-square-foot LEED Gold certified school that would finally provide students with a facility that actually looks and feels like a real school and meets their unique needs. All they needed was a location.

And then RMDS received more good news. In communications with RMDS’ authorizer, Jeffco, it was agreed that the district would sell RMDS a surplus 10-acre plot of land in Lakewood zoned for an elementary school that the district has owned since it was donated by a developer in the late 1970’s. The site was never utilized by Jeffco, however, and has sat vacant since.

With RMDS looking for a location suitable for their school and the money to purchase land, and Jeffco sitting on zoned school property, it appeared that the stars aligned for RMDS yet again. All that is needed is for the City of Lakewood to rezone the site from an elementary school to a preK-12 school site and construction can begin.

RMDS is so close to having their dream become a reality that they can almost reach out and touch it.

But the storybook ending to their facility saga has hit a major roadblock and is threatening to become a nightmare. The site sits adjacent to the 30-acre open space Hutchinson Park, and the surrounding neighborhood has become accustomed to having the space to themselves. Several committed neighbors are opposed to building any structure on the site and are trying to ensure that RMDS is not successful in developing the site.

Now, I get some of their arguments. They are worried about the increase in traffic during school drop-off and pick-up times. They don’t want a building potentially obstructing some views. They fear that the school could potentially disrupt their enjoyment of observing some of the Colorado wildlife that occasionally uses the open space.

There are a myriad of other concerns that neighbors list among their grievances. Some of these may potentially be real, others are definitely imagined, but all can be argued. No matter how accurate their concerns may be, however, what is certain is that they are pulling out all the stops to prevent Jeffco and RMDS from having the site rezoned.

What I believe the opponents fail to realize is that while they feel that they are entitled to having this space remain vacant, the site that RMDS seeks to occupy is not now, nor ever has been since the neighborhood was developed, intended to be open space. It is zoned to be a school and the only reason why there is not currently a school on the land is because the need to build one has not arisen until now. The need is real, Jeffco has the land to meet that need and the case should be closed.

The opponents are relying on the technicality that the site is zoned for an elementary school and RMDS seeks to build a preK-12 school in order to make their case and stop the development. They use the canard that rezoning will result in a school that will overwhelm the neighborhood with traffic, noise, and light pollution.

This is simply not true. In accordance with the development plan, which is locked in stone, RMDS will build a beautiful new building that will take up less than the 10-acre zoned site. The school currently enrolls only 60 children with 30 staff, and the growth plan calls for a maximum of 100 kids at some point in the distant future (compared to the average Jeffco elementary school that enrolls 400 kids). The traffic numbers are grossly inflated. There is no chance that a larger school could occupy the facility since it is designed for the special needs of the student population and not suited for other purposes. And this school is not going to go away; they are an excellent performer and serve a dedicated source of students.

Finally, the decision is high-stakes. RMDS received a lease-purchase grant from the BEST board with strict timelines. Due to how long it can take to secure a site, if they don’t have this site rezoned they can potentially lose their grant and will be back to square one. And that would truly be a nightmare.

I am hopeful that the Lakewood City Council will decide to rezone the site. It makes sense. And I also hope that the opponents of the school can soften their opposition and welcome a potential neighbor that will certainly be gracious and accommodating. RMDS, and especially the kids they serve, deserve it.

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