by Ann Randall
Despite past promises, Jeffco Public Schools asked voters in 2008 to approve $350 million in bond funds. Then-superintendent Cindy Stevenson had said that the district would not need more funds for five years after the successful 2004 passage of a $200 million bond issue. The 2008 proposal asked the taxpayers to approve new debt, which could have cost them up to $754 million in repayments over 20 to 30 years.
The 3B bond proposal campaign was led by then Arvada Mayor, Ken Fellman, husband of current board member Jill Fellman, and supported by Citizens for Jeffco Schools, which was co-chaired by Lesley Dahlkemper. The campaign failed to convince voters, and the measure was unsuccessful at the ballot box.
The 2008 proposal included funds to build two new schools even though student enrollment had declined by 2 percent between 1999 and 2007. Jeffco enrollment peaked in 2000, at about 89,000 students, before declining by more than 3,500 students. Only in the past couple years has enrollment ticked up again.
In 2009, following the defeat of 3B, the district convened a Facility Usage Committee to study capacity needs and projections. The committee also evaluated program effectiveness and recommended the closure of a number of school buildings, because the district had excess classroom capacity. At the time, Jeffco’s elementary schools were at 91 percent capacity, with middle schools at 72 percent and high schools at 88 percent.
The school board closed and sold Russell Elementary, moving those students into Arvada K-8. They also closed and mothballed Zerger Elementary (500 student capacity) in Westminster and Martensen Elementary (300 student capacity) in Wheat Ridge; both schools still sit empty. The closing of these three schools took more than 1,200 classroom seats out of use. While Russell had space for 434 students, it is the only permanent building capacity that is no longer counted in the district inventory.
Despite the failed 2008 bond issue, Jeffco building capacity expanded by over 1.2 million square feet of classroom space due to the renovations approved in the 2004 bond issue. Program capacity grew from nearly 10 million square feet to over 11.2 million square feet today.
Since the election of the new school board, enrollment in Jeffco has begun to grow. In 2013–14 Jeffco enrollment was up 450 students and in 2014–15 enrollment grew again by 550 students bringing Jeffco’s enrollment to 86,500 students. This figure is still 2,500 students under Jeffco’s 2000 peak enrollment. Still, as previously mentioned, Jeffco’s classroom capacity has increased by over 1.2 million square feet.
These pertinent facts beg the question: why did two Jeffco school members propose committing the district to additional debt to build two new schools? The taxpayers said no in 2008, and yes in 2012, but only for $99 million in bonds, approved for upgrades to existing facilities. Yet recently Ms. Dahlkemper and Ms. Fellman supported a motion to issue Certificates of Participation (COPs) for over $80 million.
This form of financing does not require asking voters to approve the debt as called for in the state constitution. The payments are accounted for as lease payments, renewable each year. However, in order to keep using the facilities, payments must be maintained. So the debt is, in fact, as permanent as bond debt. The $80 million debt increase would be used to build an additional stadium, make renovations to Sierra Elementary, and construct two brand new schools.
This proposal would have required $5 to $6 million a year out of the district’s general fund to repay the debt. That money would otherwise be available for compensation increases, to support technology, to keep class sizes low, or to cover other operating expenses.
The district projects further enrollment growth, which has spurred the latest facilities conversation. The largest new development, Candelas, is being built in Arvada at the intersection of highways 93 and 72. Enrollment increases are also anticipated as the development of Solterra in Lakewood continues to build out. Additionally, new development is planned at the old Green Gables golf course at Jewell and Wadsworth, in Westminster at the old mall location, and along I-70 in Wheat Ridge.
Because a few schools are experiencing significant enrollment growth, the board has been discussing possible solutions to house the new students. To date the proposal presented by Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell, a former bond salesman, has not included a plan to use the existing empty schools or to adjust school boundaries to accommodate the concentrated enrollment growth.
Ms. Fellman’s motion proposed building one of the two new schools nearly 5 miles south of the high-growth area it was meant to cover, the new Candelas development. The Lakewood school was proposed for a site on the west side, which would not accommodate any of the Green Gables development.
Neither of these schools would be finished until 2017, so they would not provide capacity relief for at least the next two school years. Clearly more work needs to be done.
It is certainly important for the district to anticipate and plan for growing enrollment; however, it should be done in as fiscally prudent a fashion as possible. Additionally, the board needs to be certain that the growth from all of the new developments can be accommodated. Issuing more debt should be a last resort after all options have been explored.