When Jeffco leaders saved four out of five schools from closure in 2017, they knew they were just kicking the problem down the road. They said so at the time.
They even paid an education consulting firm $170,000 to look at how other districts handle school closures and make recommendations, but the report was shelved and never acted on. It wasn’t presented to the school board or the community, and no policies changed.
Instead, administrators worked on other priorities, even as enrollment continued to drop.
This spring, Jeffco Public Schools closed another small school, Allendale Elementary, with little warning for parents and no board vote. At one meeting, parents and teachers who wanted to talk about their school were turned away.
Another 28 Jeffco schools have enrollment below 200 students, a level that threatens their financial viability, and district leaders again are launching a conversation about what to do.
It’s unclear if the previous work will be used or need to be updated.
Steve Bell, Jeffco’s chief operating officer, points out that the district has different board members, a new superintendent, and even new administrators who all need to discuss the issue.
“It’s incumbent upon us to draft and implement a certain set of criteria so we can address those things,” Bell said. “So that there is a very clear awareness both internally and externally in the district about how we do this.”
Since the 2017 proposal to close five Jeffco schools, several things interrupted the work of planning for school closure, Bell said.
When Bell and his team first hired MGT Consulting to do the outside review, they thought more school closures were imminent. But just months later, new Superintendent Jason Glass issued a two-year moratorium on any school closures.
Bell said the district decided MGT’s findings would still be relevant long-term and continued the project.
Then in 2018, Jeffco voters approved local tax increases to fund a slew of capital improvements. That again put school closures farther away.
When MGT presented its recommendations to Jeffco’s leadership team in 2019, Bell said that the district was occupied with bond projects and other work and didn’t immediately pick up on the difficult task of creating a long-term plan for school closures.
And the moratorium was still in place.
In August 2020, Superintendent Jason Glass left the district to serve as Kentucky’s education commissioner. He could not be reached for comment.
Mike Raisor, senior vice president of the education solutions group for MGT, said he reached out to the district months later and even had a meeting scheduled in March of 2020. It was canceled as the pandemic shut down schools and pushed districts into emergency response mode across the country
“We did an extensive, extensive amount of work,” Raisor said. That included reviewing similar-sized districts across the country and researching their policies, practices, and procedures around school closures. Consultants also interviewed administrators from some of those districts.
Chalkbeat submitted a public records request for MGT’s report and received only a 17-page document labeled as a draft.
The report, dated January 2019, laid out recommendations for monitoring school capacity on an annual basis, creating clear thresholds that would trigger decisions, and developing timelines that would allow for community feedback.
MGT compared Jeffco to 13 other districts across the country, including some that had more or fewer students, but none had more schools than Jeffco.
Although the report is labeled a draft, MGT officials say the report was final and just waiting on district input to be formally reprinted as a final report.
MGT officials say they also submitted an 800-page appendix with more details about research, other district’s practices, and an analysis of Jeffco’s school enrollment and building conditions. Chalkbeat requested the appendix but has not yet received it. Bell said he just learned about the existence of that appendix this week after Chalkbeat asked about it.
After learning about the MGT report, Amanda Duran, an Arvada mom of two Jeffco students who has been concerned about the district’s approach to school closures, said she was disappointed the review didn’t include parent input.
“These decisions are affecting so many families,” Duran said. “They should definitely start including us as parents that do have kids in Jeffco. Community involvement is huge. That should be one of the main priorities.”
Some of the first contract documents with MGT mention a possibility of doing community outreach as part of the review and recommendations, but that didn’t happen.
Raisor said that he wasn’t with MGT during the entire Jeffco project and doesn’t know some of the details. The people who led the project are no longer with MGT.
Joel Newton, for his part, isn’t waiting for the district.
Newton, who runs the nonprofit Edgewater Collective, said families he works with are afraid of school closure. While he thinks it’s important to have a clear understanding of how the district decides which schools to close, he also wishes the district would come up with a plan to help make schools more attractive to parents, before they are facing dire enrollment problems.
Newton is starting to do focus groups this summer to talk to families who leave their neighborhood or their district to find out what they look for in schools.
“We’re not waiting on the district, we’re taking it on to ask families, ‘what goes into your choice?’” Newton said. “For the stroller families, ‘what type of programs do you want to see when your kids become school age?’ You have to start there. That’s a more preventative measure.”
Bell said that Jeffco never stopped talking about school needs and facilities. The pyramid, or decision tree, that guides school closure decisions encompasses several factors, including building capacity, educational offerings, and “inherent community benefits,” such as a school being high-performing.
Bell acknowledged that process isn’t well known to the community, and the conversations now might need to be broader. He and board members have raised other issues. Should the district encourage more school choice? Should schools still be funded based on student counts? Does closing schools hurt disadvantaged students the most? Are district policies making schools more segregated?
“We need additional conversations,” Bell said.
Newton has seen the district discuss changes before. He participated in a committee the district convened in 2014 to look at choice and where programs across the district were located.
“But the district’s never taken that next step to say how do we do this well,” Newton said. “By sitting on it, COVID and the pandemic has ramped up demographic changes and the enrollment drop, and they missed doing something.”
“It’s really hard work,” he said. “But it’s hard work that’s important in terms of equity and funding for schools.”
Update: Jeffco Public Schools made the appendix available after this story published.