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Brighton district crosses its fingers and hopes a few voters change their minds

Sophomores Jocelyn Estrada and Stephanie Diaz eat lunch in front of Prairie View High School.
Sophomores Jocelyn Estrada and Stephanie Diaz eat lunch in front of Prairie View High School in School District 27J.
Tonja Castaneda

The rapidly growing Brighton schools hope voters are more receptive this year to a $248 million bond issue than they were in 2014, when a $148 million plan failed by 90 votes.

“I feel really good about it – until I wake up at 3 in the morning,” said Chris Fiedler, superintendent of the Adams County School District 27J.

None of the state’s other 20 largest school districts are seeking tax increases this year, but 27J leaders felt they couldn’t wait.

The reason is simple – mushrooming enrollment growth.

The district grew from 9,256 students in 2004 to 17,103 in the 2014-15 school year. That 84 percent increase far exceeds the 18.3 percent growth for all metro-area districts over the decade. The district now is the state’s 16th largest, and Fiedler says 2030 enrollment is projected at 32,000.

The fields east of Brighton and north of Denver International Airport have filled with subdivisions in recent years, and growth continues.

“Houses here are more affordable,” Fiedler explains. He also said growth in Thornton in the western part of the district has exploded.

Growth has consequences

Without new schools, growth requires uncomfortable adjustments, including modified split schedules at the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Brighton and Prairie View. Freshmen and sophomores start school at 7 a.m., with older students coming in at about 9:30 a.m.

Asked about the current split schedule, Brighton High senior Lauren Rocha simply said, “It’s the worst.”

She has classes from 8:45 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. but no lunch hour.

“It makes you not want to go to class because you want to eat so bad,” she said. “… It’s definitely harder to focus.”

Sympathetic teachers often let students grab food to bring to class.

Some seniors don’t finish the day until 5 p.m., Rocha said, making it tough to juggle after-school activities and jobs. She works evenings at a Brighton pizza restaurant. Asked about homework, Rocha said, “If I’m lucky enough” she gets some done in class, but added, “Sometimes I’m up until 2 in the morning writing a paper.”

Fiedler said the high school schedules also put a strain on staff. “There’s a challenge with scheduling. It stretches our administrators.”

Brighton, then the district’s only high school, went on a split schedule in 2003. A 2004 bond issue allowed construction of Prairie View, easing schedule problems at Brighton. But Prairie View opened with modular classrooms, and most of the district’s other schools also have modulars.

Without a new high school, the district may have to face the possibility of full split schedules at the two high schools, with half the students attending from 6 a.m. to noon and the others in school from noon to 6:30 p.m., Fielder said.

The district also has contingency plans for year-round schedules at its elementary schools.

“That’s one of the possible options in the absence of new space,” he said.

Persuading the voters

Despite the wafer-thin margin of loss last year, bond-issue supporters are determined to succeed this time around.

“We immediately turned that loss into fuel. The disappointment immediately drove the determination,” said Chris Wahrle, a Brighton parent who is a co-founder of IAM27J, a community organization that is campaigning for passage of the bond.

“There is a lot more familiarity with the issues the district is facing” this year, Wahrle said. He added that supporters had to do a lot more explaining about the bond last year.

The IAM27J group so far has raised about $73,000 and spent more than $25,000, according to a recent campaign filing. Wahrle said campaign efforts include 10,000 hand-written postcards sent to voters, 3,000 yard signs, large banners at major intersections, phone banks and lots of neighborhood canvassing.

“We knew we had to more this year,” he said.

There are no organized opposition groups.

Fiedler notes there a lot of “noise” in 2014 – bond and tax override elections in neighboring districts plus legislative and other elections.

Among other things, elections last year brought out more Republican voters, who often are more averse to tax increases. Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Adams County, 63 percent of Republican turned out last year compared to 53 percent of Democrats. None of the nine tax increases proposed in five Adams districts passed last year.

Fiedler hopes district voters will be able to focus this year.

“We know that the campaign this year is about participation, not persuasion,” he said.

If passed, the bond issue would increase property taxes on the average home about $33 a year, Fielder said.

What happens next

“If we win there’s hope. If we lose we’re going to lose good staff, good administrators, good families. They’ll go other places,” Fiedler said.

But if the bond is passed, voters will face the issue again. The superintendent said that if current rates of enrollment growth continue the district should start thinking about a new bond issue in six years.

See the document below for a full list of district bond issues and tax overrides on the ballot this election.

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