Volume 4 Issue 1

Is Your School on the Chopping Block?

by Karen Schotz

Less than five months after they were elected, the “clean slate” board surprised the community with a list of possible school closures and consolidations. In fact, in the three plans they have considered, nearly 20 different Jeffco schools have been threatened with closure. There seems to be no consistency to the criteria used  for a school to make the closure list which leaves many wondering if their school will be next.

While the board has stated that schools with enrollment under 300 students are not efficient to run and suggested they should be evaluated for closure, not all of the schools that have been threatened are under 300 students. Some on the closure list have had much higher enrollments. Some have been high achieving; some have lower achievement. Some have had many empty seats available and some have been over-enrolled. Some are older buildings and some much newer.

“Susan Harmon voted to close Stober; Brad Rupert voted to close Pennington.”

Not only has the board not set any criteria for a school to make the closure list, they never asked the community for our priorities. While they have held a few community meetings, there wasn’t any attempt to establish a community task force in order to make a list of recommendations for how to evaluate schools for closure, nor was there any attempt at holding a series of town halls to solicit input on grade configurations, building adequacy, or the community’s support for school closures. This leaves many to wonder if they will wake up and find their school on a closure list. 

On April 22, 2016, in plan one, Glennon Heights and Pleasant View community members awoke to just such news. They learned the board was considering closing their schools. Families in 10 other elementary schools heard their schools might be closed with five super-sized schools built to replace them. The schools which were considered for closure and consolidation were: Allendale and Campbell; Parr and Little; Prospect Valley and Kullerstrand; Stober and Vivian; and Kendrick Lakes and Patterson.

Families naturally rallied and wrote letters to the board, attended the few community meetings that were quickly cobbled together, and asked that their schools be spared. Parents spent precious time advocating that the achievement growth in their schools was serving their students and sharing stories of personal impact. Messages varied, but every community rallied to support their school. By June 2016 the board had decided not to close or consolidate any schools and instead indicated they would ask for a tax increase. Families at the twelve schools rejoiced believing closing conversations were finished. Then in late June came plan two.

Summer had already begun for most families when the board indicated they would be seeking a nearly-billion-dollar bond (tax increase). Allegedly the funds were to update buildings and the plan included no school closures, but millions were allocated to adding additional capacity to elementary and middle schools. Many wondered where the original thoughts of increasing building efficiencies had gone as this plan added over 3,000 new classroom seats to the already 10,000 empty seats across the district.

“Brad Rupert suggested the board close schools in parts of the community that had not voted in favor of the billion- dollar tax increase.”

This plan included replacing Parr, Kendrick LakesGreen Gables, Prospect Valley, Fletcher Miller, and Marshdale elementary schools. Each new building would have cost over $25 million. Replacing Stober was not on the list for phase one and many wondered why Green Gables, Marshdale, and Fletcher were on the list when the other schools that had more facility needs were not. Community members said no to the plan by voting down the nearly-billion-dollar tax increase required for its implementation.

Plan three emerged in January 2017. Seeking to “save money,” the board once again began discussing school closures and consolidations. Peck, Pennington, Pleasant View, Stober, and Swanson elementary schools found themselves the subject of these closure conversations. The board also considered closing the Gifted and Talented Center program at Wheat Ridge High School, the only GT Center at the high school level in the whole district, and moving Long View into McLain. They ignored the millions of additional dollars that had come to the district due to the increase in tax revenues from skyrocketing property values.

While the goal of efficiency is to be commended, community members once again were confused by how these schools came to be targeted. There seemed to be no consistent criteria or methodology for selecting which schools might be closed. This is causing fear in nearly every school community. In fact, according to Rocky Mountain PBS, the only consistency to the schools on the plan seemed to be that the “plan would impact low-income students disproportionately.” (http://www. rmpbs.org/blogs/news/disadvantaged- students-more-likely-to-be-impacted-by- jeffco-school-closures/)

Families once again scrambled to understand how their school had ended up on the closure list. They rallied alumni to share stories of the impact of each school on the community. They prepared presentations and on February 9, 2017, the board room was filled to overflowing with families asking that their schools be kept open. The conversations revealed some interesting perspectives. Board member Brad Rupert suggested the board close schools in parts of the community that had not supported the billion dollar tax increase.

While the board voted 5–0 to close Pleasant View, other school closure decisions were not unanimous. Stober, one of the highest performing schools on the list and one which had been spared only a year earlier, came within one vote of being closed. Both Amanda Stevens and Susan Harmon voted to close Stober. Brad Rupert voted to close Pennington. All board members indicated there would be more school closures in the future.

The new Superintendent has said barring unexpected events he would not be proposing additional school closures. However, in 2011 then-superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the same thing and by year’s end there were two schools closed. School closures are board- level decisions and the board has still not set any criteria for evaluating school closures. A further challenge for elementary schools is the change the board implemented recently moving 6th graders out of elementary schools and into middle schools. After the change, there will be about 25 elementary schools under the arbitrary 300-student enrollment target the board set. This will move additional schools to the potential closure list.

School closures are sometimes inevitable when families with children move or the children grow up and there are not as many students needing to be served. But research shows closing schools does not help improve student achievement and has many negative impacts in the community. The school board needs to make parents and the community a part of the conversation and decisions can’t appear random.

School Closure Plans Over the Last Decade

In 2008, recognizing that district enrollment was declining, the Jefferson County School Board directed the superintendent to create a Facility Usage Committee. A group of more than 30 community members was tasked with creating a process to evaluate which schools should be recommended for closure. They also created a list of potential boundary and grade configuration changes, in addition to the possible school closures based on the priorities they set. The committee met for nearly a year and conducted dozens of community meetings, many with overflow crowds, as they discussed both moving sixth grade to middle school and the potential for school closures that would create. They also discussed which schools might close to eliminate some of the district’s empty seats.

The 2009 school board election ushered in three new school board members, electing those that opposed moving sixth grade to middle schools. The first task the new board faced was deciding which schools, if any, should be closed and which parts of the Facility Usage Committee’s recommendations should be implemented. Within 60 days of being sworn in, the new board decided to close only one school, Russell Elementary. Students were moved to Arvada Middle School which became a K–8. Later that year, the empty Russell campus was sold to Jefferson County and became home to the county-wide Head Start Program. No community was surprised to find their school on the closure list. The priorities for making the closure list were clear and the community was engaged in the conversation.

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Just a year later in 2011, such was not the case. The superintendent presented a new facility plan which recommended 10 schools for potential closure: Campbell, Glennon Heights, Kullerstrand, Parr, Pleasant View, Red Rocks, Martensen, Stober, Thompson, and Zerger. The plan also recommended closing six additional elementary schools and building three new supersized elementary schools. The schools on the list were Colorow and Leawood, Kendrick Lakes and Patterson, as well as Green Gables and Westgate. The threats of closure caused immense anxiety in communities and the superintendent was forced to announce there would be no additional school closures.

The relief was again short-lived. After a series of behind-closed-doors negotiating sessions with the unions in an attempt to save money, Martensen and Zerger were recommended for closure. The recommendations didn’t come until March 2011, after the first round of choice enrollment had passed, so many parents had to scramble to find new schools for their children. Since their closure, neither the Zerger nor the Martensen buildings have been sold, so the district continues to use operating funds to maintain both buildings. They had remained closed and empty for a number of years.

In 2014, Martensen began hosting security trainings and although the site is still owned and supported by the district it has now officially become a training center for law enforcement. Zerger remained empty until 2017; Doral Arts Academy is now renting the facility.

In November 2011, Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman were elected to the school board and in spite of continued declining enrollment, school closure conversations ceased. After the 2013 elections, the school board directed staff to work with communities to understand their desired grade configurations and facility needs. After many community meetings, both the Jefferson and Alameda areas decided to consolidate their middle and high schools. The board approved both decisions and seventh and eighth grade students were moved to the high school campuses. In the Alameda area, O’Connell Middle School became home to the students from Stein Elementary, while that school underwent extensive updates. Stein reopened this year and elementary students returned to what is now called Rose Stein while some stayed in the O’Connell building, now called Emory O’Connell Elementary.

In the Jefferson High School area, the seventh and eighth grade students from Wheat Ridge 5–8 were moved to Jefferson High School campus. The fifth and sixth graders stayed in the Wheat Ridge 5–8 building and the K–4 students from Stevens also moved into the Wheat Ridge 5–8 (formerly Wheat Ridge Middle School). The students from Sobesky found a new home in the previous Stevens Elementary building.

Currently the four schools that were closed in order to save money are still maintained by the school district. Sobesky, Pleasant View, Zerger and Martensen could be sold so that taxpayers don’t need to continue maintaining them. The funds from the sale could be used for the many necessary capital improvements.