Jeffco delays grade shuffling, school closures

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By Sal Christ

Two weeks after proposing the closure of five elementary schools to free up funds for teacher compensation, the Jeffco school board voted early Friday to close just one school — Pleasant View Elementary in Golden — and to delay plans to shuffle sixth-graders to middle schools. 

The school board's 12:30 a.m. decision came after a lengthy debate about whether the district was right to accelerate plans to move the sixth-graders by an entire year. While schools in the Chatfield articulation area are already transitioning sixth-graders, Arvada and Wheat Ridge schools were not scheduled to shuffle grades until 2018 — a sticking point with community members, parents and school staffs. 

Superintendent Dan McMinimee told the board that his team experienced “strong pushback” on the plans and didn't feel it was the best decision for a district intent on rebuilding community trust. 

“Parents, staff and principals have told us our original plan to move in the fall of 2018 is the plan that they prefer,”  McMinimee said. “Board President Ron Mitchell pointed out that moving sixth-graders might create an integrity issue, and that's the last thing we want to do as we continue to rebuild trust in our community. We've heard clearly that closing schools with so little community input is not the direction the community would like us to go.”

Ultimately, board members agreed.

In his motion to amend the district's grade reconfiguration plans, board member Brad Rupert stressed that while the board was committed to the K-5 and grades 6-8 school model, it was not “going to direct Wheat Ridge and Arvada to do it in 2017-18” and would “engage the community in implementation of any (other) changes going forward.”

Because the proposed school closures were predicated on increased capacity at elementary schools as a result of grade shuffling, the decision directly affected the board's school closure votes. 

Though divided on individual schools, board members voted not to close Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Stober Elementary in Lakewood.

While the decision stands for the 2017-18 academic year, school closures may be revisited in the future.

Both decisions factored into the board's vote against reallocating $27.5 million for classroom additions at four middle schools that would have been affected by moving sixth-graders; on Mitchell's recommendation, the measure was tabled until April. 

Friday morning's vote came after hundreds of people descended on the school district's headquarters and packed the district's board room Thursday afternoon in hopes of deterring the vote to close schools and cut programming. Parents, students and elected officials filled not only the board room but also two overflow rooms where the the board meeting was streamed live for more than eight hours.

No less than 150 people signed up to speak during public comment opposing the closures, including state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger and Lakewood City Council members Charley Able and Ramey Johnson. 

In spite of school board admonishments, attendees frequently clapped and cheered public comment, and many remained for the duration of the meeting, which didn't adjourn until 1:30 a.m.

Closures, cuts were part of plan to find millions for compensation

First proposed at the school board's Jan. 26 meeting, the school closures were among proposed cuts aimed at finding $25 million in the district's budget for increases in employee compensation next year. 

In addition to school closures, the school district had originally recommended significant staff reductions, boosting athletic fees, increased building use fees and more; in total, the original recommendations would have freed $17.5 million and affected 136 full-time employees. 

However, school board members voted against eliminating the gifted-and-talented program at Wheat Ridge High School, against eliminating several other gifted-and-talented teaching positions, and against cutting almost a dozen “social, emotional learning specialists” and “literacy interventionists” roles. Furthermore, the board voted to defer cuts to custodial services and to maintain busing to option schools and outdoor education schools in Bailey and Evergreen.

Still, the district will move forward with $10.8 million in budget adjustments in the coming year, including increased athletic and building use fees, cutting $1 million in unused sick leave and reducing educator effectiveness positions by three.

Closing Pleasant View Elementary will save the district about $663,000 and will impact five full-time employees. 

Contact reporter Sal Christ at sal@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1035.