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New Stapleton high school opens old wounds

Long before the $14 million budget shortfall for the new Stapleton high school hit the news, Kathy Epperson and other parents were raising concerns about the project’s cost.

“It was big enough that we were forthright about saying, ‘we want to be proactive,'” said Epperson, who participated in the planning for the school’s facilities. She and a group of parents, which included several who work in the contracting and construction industries, doubted the district’s estimates starting last fall and started to look at alternatives.

But they say the district reassured them.

“We asked, ‘is this [option] less expensive or more expensive?'” said Karla Rehring, who also participated in the planning process. It’s a wash, Rehring said she was told by district officials. Several months later, after spending $21 million of bond funds on projects that reduce overcrowding in southwest and far northeast schools, district officials conceded that, yes, the project would cost more than the available funds.

And the outcry from one of the city’s most vocal communities has been forceful.

“Really, they ought to be better at this,” said Epperson.

The showdown between the district and Stapleton parents has drawn attention to communication failures that other, less vocal communities have complained of for years. Repeated failure to communicate crucial information has sowed distrust and stoked a perception on the part of Stapleton community members that the district is trying to avoid delivering on its promises.

And that failure, which has provoked angry outbursts at community meetings, could have long-lasting impacts. One observer said the process has “soured the well” for future district projects in the region. And some parents are reconsidering their support for district initiatives, including future bond measures.

So what happened?

This timeline charts the course of the conflict over a new high school in Stapleton:

District officials say the furor in Stapleton is the result of a misunderstanding over how the process was supposed to go. The school’s facilities committee was under the impression that the design they were working on was within the budget and would be built when, in fact, the district thought they were developing a wish list, not a specific scope.

The debate has focused on a structure known as the “commons” building, which was intended to house the school’s arts, science and music facilities. Stapleton community members, especially those who were involved in the school design process, feel the district committed to the construction of the commons building during so-called “phase one,” the portion of the design to be built with 2012 bond funds (a second phase is anticipated to be a part of the 2016 bond).

“The commons was always part of it,” said Rehring.

But district officials contend that the commitment is to the services the funds are supposed to provide, rather than the physical structure.

“What we’re really talking about is the functionality of the project,” said David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer who oversees the bond projects for DPS. The promised functionality, Suppes said, will be provided, just not in the form originally designed.

The list of other schools in Denver with warming kitchens.
The list of other schools in Denver with warming kitchens.

District officials have proposed an interim solution until the commons building is completed. They say the commons building could be built as part of “phase 1.5” and could take place before any 2016 bond funds were available, although the funding source remains unclear.

Under the proposed design, the classrooms which would have been in the commons building would be incorporated into the other academic spaces, the administrative space would be cut back, the bleachers in the auditorium would be reduced in size and, most controversially, a full cafeteria kitchen would be replaced with a warming kitchen.

Although the warming kitchen, where food is prepared off site and heated up on campus, is a solution that exists at a number of schools across the city, parents have raised concerns about the nutritional quality of the food that would be provided. According to Suppes, this solution would provide the exact same meals of identical nutritional content as a traditional cafeteria.

“People are talking about it like it’s a trailer,” Suppes commented at the March 24th community meeting. “It’s a fully functioning cafeteria.”

The only drawback, he said, would come if there were large and unanticipated swings in the number of students eating school-provided food.

But Epperson, Rehring and others are not satisfied with the solution, saying there was insufficient input into what should be cut.

Instead, they would like to see the district spend funds held in reserve for bond project overruns to fill in some of shortfall. It’s not a solution district officials are likely to agree to for a while.

“We are really too early in the bond program” to spend those funds, said Suppes. But he said Stapleton would be a top priority, if the money isn’t needed to fill in cost overruns during the construction phase of other projects.

The Stapleton community is unlikely to back down from their demands and board member Landri Taylor, who represents the northeast Denver zone which includes Stapleton, says they are likely to get what they are asking for, in one form or another.

“I believe things will work, that the third building will be built,” said Taylor, although he would not commit to it being the desired commons building. And he expects a solution could arrive relatively quickly. “I expect it by the end of the year. December or January is the time we need to know how to fund the third building.”

More opaque than transparent

More than any particular aspect of the building, the situation has been aggravated by the slow pace with which district officials have released information. The delays have fueled a lack of trust in district capabilities and intentions.

“They have the right words,” said one parent. “They have a community engagement process and that means they talk and we listen and we like it.”

Without hard answers to community members’ concerns, rumors sprang up about the district’s intentions for the campus, including allegations that the conflict is intended to drive Stapleton parents away from the school to allow room for students from other parts of the city.

District officials acknowledge the distrust but hope that the Stapleton community will come around to the process. Suppes has repeatedly and publicly apologized for the communication failures. As for why the issue of the shortfall wasn’t addressed earlier, he said, “I don’t know.”

“As soon as that was known, that’s something we would want to escalate,” said Suppes. “I don’t know whether [staffers] were trying to deal with it or what.” He said the first he heard of the shortfall was in a staff meeting in the week before the first meeting with the Stapleton community.

Still, Suppes acknowledged trust was unlikely to return until the school was delivered, a sentiment echoed by observers and community members.

Not for the first time

The current fight is certainly not new to Stapleton, which has a history of acrimonious relations with the district. Stapleton’s growth, which is one of the fastest in the city, has repeatedly outpaced district’s expectation. This has lead to confrontations between community members and the district over the construction of new schools in the neighborhood, the sting of which is apparent in meetings concerning the high school.

At meetings for the new high school, parents complained that their students had been shuffled from building to building. According to parents, Stapleton’s first class of ninth graders has been the first in every school they’ve attended.

“The name of the game in Stapleton is you build a building and the next year you can’t fit into it,” said Rehring. She estimates that the building, currently called Northfield High School, could already be overcapacity by 2018, the soonest they could be adding seats (the community is currently in the process of selecting a final name). For a comprehensive look at how the district calculated enrollment, see here.

Karla Rehring’s estimates of enrollment for the new school.
Karla Rehring’s estimates of enrollment for the new school.

“Where we have some difference of opinion is some people think 100 percent or a very high percentage [of students] will want to go to this school,” said Suppes.

Current district enrollment projections allow for roughly 80 percent of Stapleton students currently enrolled in DPS schools to attend the high school, while they expect the remaining fifth of students in neighborhood to choose another high school.

It’s a disagreement that touches on fault lines within the district, and across the nation, between those who would like to see the district move towards more “choice” options and those who support a more traditional neighborhood schools model.

Where Rehring and many of her compatriots say they would like a neighborhood school for neighborhood students, Suppes sees things differently: “It’s a community that values choice.”

Despite neighborhood school proponent Jeannie Kaplan’s departure from the school board and replacement by a pro-choice member, Kaplan’s name still surfaces in the debate over the Stapleton high school. Worries about the district’s commitment to neighborhood schools have been stoked by previous district decisions that community members believe put neighborhood kids at a disadvantage, and a rumor that charter network DSST wishes to place a high school on the campus. District officials say no final decision has been made.

Still, district superintendent Tom Boasberg has repeatedly and publicly promised that any Stapleton student who wishes to attend the school will have a spot. And district officials say they remain committed to that outcome.

Setting the stage for future fights

The past two months of conflict are likely to reverberate as Stapleton community members and the district prepare to square off about more decisions for the school. For one, the process for the Stapleton high school has raised doubts about the district’s ability to handle large projects with big price tags.

“The way they budget is crazy,” said Katie Dell, a Stapleton parent who works for a construction company. “They’ve wasted so much money.”

Those doubts could throw into question the success of the 2016 bond, despite a long track record of success for bond issues in the district.

“They’re a little too confident,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “I’ve voted for every bond but I would be hard-pressed to vote again.”

And the distrust could bleed into what promises to be an even more heated confrontation: deciding enrollment boundaries for the new school. At a recent meeting, when district officials mentioned the kickoff of that discussion, some parents made their feelings on the topic clear.

“Let me save you time,” said Epperson. “There is only room for Stapleton and a small slice of Park Hill.”

Her statement drew among the loudest applause of the evening. Observers said that the disfunction of the facilities debate promises to sour the fight over boundaries, which they say will likely be tinged with strong racial and class overtones. Some worried that it would drive non-Stapleton students away from the school.

“I hope the district’s mistakes don’t hurt the larger more important issues like making sure this high school represents the diversity of NE Denver and is not just for Stapleton residents,” said Mary Seawell, a former board member who lives in Stapleton.

Not just in Stapleton

The turmoil out in Stapleton has attracted considerable attention but is certainly not unique in the city for the lack of trust parents and community members have in the district.

In the fall, supporters of Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver drew attention to what they felt were similar cuts in their bond project. But then as now, district officials said that what the community felt it would get was part of the long-term vision for the school, not the scope for the 2012 bond funds.

In response, the board designated some additional funds for the project and streamlined the process. But some say the issue is resurfacing and community members are worried they could see their project cut once again.

Even in cases where the design process is going as it’s supposed to, Taylor and other board members say the district’s management of relationships is a liability.

“Part of the issue with DPS is trust,” said Taylor. “The trust issue is not just this year. It’s been there. It’s absolutely not an issue that started or ended with the Stapleton communities.”

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