Five Jefferson County elementary schools in three different areas of the state’s second largest school district would be closed after this school year as part of $20.4 million in budget cuts proposed Thursday.
Jeffco Public Schools is facing a squeeze in local and state funding while it also seeks to better pay teachers and staff, which the school board has made a top priority.
In hearing staff budget recommendations Thursday night, the board kicked off what is sure to be a difficult, contentious process. Few issues are as gut-wrenching and politically fraught as closing schools that are woven into the fabric of communities.
The five schools facing possible closure after this school year are: Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge, Stober Elementary in Lakewood and Pleasant View Elementary in Golden.
In total, the schools have 850 students in their enrollment boundaries, district officials say. All five are in buildings that are at least 50 years old. All but one — Pennington — saw enrollment declines this year.
Four of the five schools share another characteristic — their student populations are poorer than the district average. At both Pennington and Pleasant View, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches, an indicator of poverty. At Swanson, the rate is 66 percent and at Peck, it is 58 percent. The district average is 33 percent.
Closing the schools and sending the children to neighboring elementaries would save the district $3.5 million a year, staff said.
“We need to get the process right as we go down this trail,” said board president Ron Mitchell. “Part of the reason I believe that is because this is not the end of this process. This is the beginning. We are going to be in this business (of closing schools) in the years to come … We need to do it well, do it right.”
The board was asked to vote on the closures and other budget cuts on Feb. 9 — a quick turnaround that illustrates the difficult position the district is in after November’s failure of two tax measures that would have gone to buildings and teacher salaries.
Other Denver-area school districts passed their tax measures, putting Jeffco at a disadvantage when economic forecasts and limitations from the state’s complicated tax laws mean “there is no life raft coming from the state,” as one staff member put it.
With 13,000 seats sitting unused, enrollment projected to continue declining in certain areas, and the edict that teachers be paid more to keep the district competitive, district staff said the time to act is now.
“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”
District staff chose the schools based on a number of criteria, including enrollment trends, the condition of the building and the capacity of nearby schools to absorb more students. Academic performance was not taken into account.
District staff is also recommending another significant, long-discussed change: that Jeffco middle schools add sixth grade in addition to the existing seventh and eighth grades, to make better use of space and save money. The majority of districts in metro Denver and the nation follow that structure. Some Jeffco middle schools would get additions to make room for the additional grade.
Other budget cuts that district staff recommended include:
- Eliminating all social and emotional learning specialists and a coordinator. Schools nationwide are investing in this work, which helps students develop skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts and make responsible decisions. Denver Public Schools in November passed a tax increase that will bolster efforts to help students’ social and emotional needs.
- Cutting by half the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level. District research shows literacy interventionists are “closing the gap for our most highly impacted populations.”
- Cutting four of 16 “resource teachers” who help support teachers of students determined to be gifted and talented.
Other proposed cuts include increased athletics fees, elimination of a quarterly audit and a reduction in how often schools are cleaned at night by custodians.
Only a handful of the proposed cuts — including the school closures and fee increases — require board approval.
Several school board members expressed reservations about the proposals Thursday, voicing concerns about a “very squeezed timeline,” that three of the schools slated for closure were not previously identified as candidates for closure, and a possible erosion in community trust in the board. Some questioned whether school performance should be a factor in closing schools.
Board member Ali Lasell said the board had told the community that steps such as moving sixth grade into middle school wouldn’t happen until 2018. The response from district staff: Circumstances have changed and so must the plan.
Said Mitchell: “We’ve got in my mind a little bit of an integrity issue here.”
McMinimee said fewer than 120 teachers and staff would be impacted by the closures, and most would likely be offered other positions in the district, in part because of expected turnover.
As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings that also are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking earnings from that.
In an interview before Thursday’s meeting, McMinimee said the district is watching enrollment along the county’s eastern boundary with Denver, where some longtime families no longer have children in school and others are being priced out or kept out by skyrocketing housing costs.
Both Denver Public Schools, which is seeing its enrollment growth slow, and Aurora Public Schools, which saw a record enrollment decline this year, also are feeling the impacts of rising costs and gentrification.
“Growth in a metro area is a lot like throwing a rock in a pond,” McMinimee said. “What happens in Denver just has this ripple effect you see going out into the suburbs now. Obviously, that stops when you get out into an area where there are high-priced homes already.”
The district and community groups have poured resources into lifting student achievement in clusters of schools with large numbers of students who live in poverty. Just last week, the district celebrated graduation rate gains at one such school, Jefferson High.
McMinimee acknowledged he was concerned about the impact the closures could have on the district’s efforts to serve traditionally underserved communities, but he urged a broader view.
“I am concerned about that, but I also recognize our responsibility is to 86,000 kids,” he said. “It’s not just one specific area. Those efforts that we put into those schools, those can be replicated in other areas.”
Photo credit: Chalkbeat Colorado