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New Jeffco board to reconsider school construction, budget issues Thursday

The reconfigured Jefferson County school board is poised to make its first big decision Thursday, likely repudiating a move by three recalled school board members and reversing a controversial decision about how to pay for a new school.

In play is what to do with $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year and how to meet the needs of a growing neighborhood that needs a school.

Complicating matters for the state’s second largest school district: An uncertain financial forecast from the state, critical maintenance needs totaling $789 million and uneven growth patterns across the district’s 800 square miles that have some schools busting at the seams while others are losing students.

Last spring, the previous Jefferson County school board directed Jeffco Public Schools officials to use $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year to build a new elementary school for the Candelas neighborhood in northwest Arvada.

That decision ran contrary to what district staff had recommended, which was to finance the new school using a lease-to-own option known as Certificates of Participation, or COPs, and earmark the $15 million for one-time bonuses and reserves.

At the time of the decision, board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk said they had found a way to build a new school without incurring any new debt for the state’s second largest school district. The vote became campaign fodder for the recall.

“At the time, I thought that was not a very sound decision,” said Ali Lasell, who won one of the board’s open seats in November.

But she added that she isn’t sure how she’ll vote on Thursday.

“It’s weighing on my mind heavily,” she said. “Having that $15 million might be a good way to lessen the load on the COPs. I don’t think there is a way around COPs. Fifteen million dollars isn’t even enough for an elementary school.”

Northwest growth

Few are debating whether a new school is needed in northwest Arvada. But there are questions about how many students the school should serve.

Like many school districts in the Denver-metro area, Jefferson County’s student population is growing.

District officials have said for two years that a new school would be needed to meet growth demands. They’ve suggested a K-8 school all along.

“It’s a rapidly changing area,” said Steve Bell, Jeffco’s chief operating officer.

The growth is driven by a booming economy, housing market and a birthrate that is growing for the first time since the Great Recession.

While the district’s student count is up to 86,731 students, some areas are growing while others are not.

More than 9,000 Jeffco students chose to attend district charters schools this year, up from about 8,000 last year, said Tim Reed, Jeffco’s executive director of facilities.

District-run middle schools in the north are stable, while many in the central part of the district are losing students at a quicker rate. Schools in southern Jefferson County are seeing the fewest new students and losing some.

The district considered shifting attendance boundary lines in the north and central area to accommodate the student boom, Reed said, but that would mean a 30-minute bus ride each way for some middle school students.

“On a snow day they could be on the bus for an hour and a half,” Reed said.

The new Arvada campus, regardless of the grade configuration, would be the first school the district has built from scratch since the early 2000s, Reed said.

“We’re being prudent,” he said.

The $15 million question

Given campaign rhetoric, the board is mostly likely to direct the district to use the private-market financing option to construct the new school and possibly two other projects.

If that’s the case, the $15 million previously earmarked for construction could be freed up and could serve as a down payment on those loans, got entirely into reserves, or a portion could be split among the district’s staff.

At a Dec. 17 school board meeting, Jeffco superintendent Dan McMinimee suggested about $5 million be split evenly among district staff including administrators, teachers and classified employees.

Another potential option is to give every employee a 1 percent bonus. A teacher making $50,000 would earn $500; a principal making $90,000 would earn $900.

Board member Lasell said if the one-time bonuses are approved, she wants the district to negotiate with the district’s unions.

“I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for the board to make a unilateral decision when it comes to teacher pay,” she said.

Possible delay

While the board could take action as early as Thursday, it’s also likely the board could delay some decisions until later this month.

Under state law, Jeffco has until Jan. 31 to amend its current school year budget.

“I understand the staff has ideas, but I don’t think there is a rush,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, a nonprofit that championed the recalled school board members’ policy decisions.

Atwell said she hopes the new board will roll some of the discussions about school construction, teacher pay and a possible bond question into budget conversations scheduled for later this spring.

“I just hope they’d consider everyone’s opinion and have a true community conversation,” she said.

Lasell said she’d support postponing some action for more community input. But she added, “That Candelas project has to continue on track.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Tim Reed’s last name.