School board weighed difficult choices

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By The Staff

The Jeffco school board took serious actions on Jan. 14 related to managing school facility capacity. The district’s student population has steadied at about 80,000-plus kids, and students “choicing” in and out of neighborhood schools have affected the numbers of kids at different schools.

Ken Caryl Middle School was on the block at one point so Jeffco could fill more seats at Deer Creek Middle School. A walk-through of the Deer Creek facility showed insufficient library, gym and cafeteria space for the roughly 1,200 kids that would be in that building.

The Ken Caryl community did not want its building closed. More than 600 people attended an evening session with three school board members to support the school. Hundreds of e-mails arrived describing Ken Caryl’s importance to the community: Parents want a feeder school to Columbine High School; they want their kids to walk to school; they don’t want their kids crossing Wadsworth Boulevard; Ken Caryl has achieved outstanding academic results; the principal has done a great job to make the school great; the teachers are a powerful team for students; the kids respond to the quality education they’re receiving … these are just the most frequent observations by parents. The board listened, and the arguments worked.

The board also decided not to close O’Connell Middle and Wheat Ridge Middle schools. It will close Russell Elementary and turn Arvada Middle into a K-8 program. It will dramatically reduce the number of temporary buildings used as classrooms, and it will keep school population matched to the number of seats in each school.

Each school on the block had a tremendously supportive community behind it. School parents and community leaders prepared detailed, factually based reasons for keeping buildings open. Board members worked hard to take in the issues, sort through the facts, study options and develop solutions based on recommendations from the Facilities Usage Community and community response. The board had to weigh fiscal impacts (closing and/or selling $11million buildings, and getting a much-reduced return on the investment, for example), community impacts (boarding up closed buildings, for example), and school programs (combining middle and high school kids in one building).

This was not easy. The board’s decisions will put pressure on the budget, as money not saved in one place obviously must be saved in another.

The district’s budget deficit for 2009-10 is about $40 million. One option is to take $29 million out of reserves and cut an additional $11.8 million from everywhere else, including freezing salaries. Our $160 million reserve will drop to about $136 million for 2010-11. An option for that year is to take another $25 million out of reserves and cut an additional $13 million, and that also includes freezing salaries. If the financial situation doesn’t improve, we will have to take $27 million out of reserves in 2011-12 and cut $18 million out of everything else. The options will change based on many variables — and absolutely no decisions have been made yet by the board.

These numbers can actually get worse, depending on benefits, PERA decisions, the state’s contribution, inflation, etc. No matter how we look at the budget, it’s grim as far as I can see.

It’s important that ardent community support for our schools continue. Jeffco wants to give its kids the best education possible so they can go on to college, get jobs, work productively, have their own families … secure their futures. Only a committed and fully engaged community can make that possibl0.

South Jeffco resident Paula Noonan is a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education.