by Kara Johnston
For most people, discussions around capital spending are often followed by yawns and eye rolls. Face it. Budgets and facilities are boring, and I surmise that this is precisely why it’s easy for organizations like school districts to gloss over capital needs and deferred maintenance.
Most people don’t want to engage in a topic they either don’t care about or don’t understand. We hunger for news about test scores, athletic games, and student service projects, but quickly lose interest when someone wants to talk about a leaky roof or the dreaded facilities master plan.
But the building environment can be a critical factor impacting achievement. Our children spend more time in their classrooms than in any other place outside their home. Children need a school that provides a secure, positive, and comfortable environment to help them learn. Planning for buildings and maintenance is vital to the district’s mission fulfillment.
Jeffco’s dwindling allocation from state coffers, coupled with disproportionate increases in admin. positions and salaries, has led to a bad practice when it comes to maintaining schools and providing ideal learning environments: Defer.
Nowhere is this practice more evident than at Sierra Elementary in north Arvada. Sierra was built in the early 1970s under the failed “open concept classroom” educational theory. Simply put, the school was built without classroom walls to encourage freedom and flexibility in teaching. In reality, classrooms without walls were proven impractical almost immediately.
If you visit Sierra today, the original building houses outdated classrooms divided by acoustic airwalls (code for “these walls allow you to hear everything in the classroom next door”).
In addition, roughly 160 fifth and sixth graders are housed in “temps” – buildings that fulfilled their natural life 20 years ago and were supposed to be removed by board decree in 2010. The temps are drafty, regulating heat and cold in them is a daily distraction, and boys and girls are forced to share bathrooms when students are entering puberty and becoming hyper-aware of their need for privacy.
In 2004, the district learned that Sierra’s structure was in dire shape, and it was added to the list of renovations in that bond issue. Problem was, Sierra’s construction schedule was at the end of the priorities list. Most of the bond money had been spent on other projects. With what was left, the district started construction on half of the school, completing new admin offices, a special needs classroom, and a new gym and cafeteria. Parents and teachers were promised that classrooms where our children spend the majority of their days would be housed in one warm, safe, and dry building.
Two bonds later, Sierra continues to deteriorate, and our “promised” school is not even on the list.
I have a simple solution. In the last bond, the district asked for $99 million for capital spending, but actually received $117 million because of favorable borrowing conditions. I have visited the school board and met with district officials. Now I am going to the community to fight for the 553 children at Sierra and ensure that investments are going toward efforts that foster optimal, safe learning environments for our kids.
Building a new school is undoubtedly an expensive proposition. But as an old car mechanic famously said, “Pay me now or pay me later.” Jeffco can address the problem today with the extra bond money, or continue to stand by while construction costs rise and the needs increase. The children of Sierra have been waiting nearly 10 years for the district to uphold its promise of a new school. Many who were students then since have continued on and graduated high school.
While I understand new bleachers, secure locks, and window repairs are needed, Sierra’s students are housed in awful conditions. I am sure parents and taxpayers would want to give them a school that fosters the education they deserve.
The board has a decision to make: use the capital for more bleachers, or build the Sierra classrooms as promised 10 years ago. The taxpayers who approve these mission-critical ballot initiatives want to see how their funds make a difference. They, along with the children at Sierra, want to see a building that inspires teaching and learning.
We are waiting.