Diet drama

Soda ban fizzles: Protesters disrupt meeting after vote allowing diet drinks back in Colorado schools

Members of the group Westwood Unidos, hold up signs of protest in the lobby of the State Board of Education. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Diet soda will be allowed to return to Colorado high schools after a seven-year ban, a fractured State Board of Education decided Wednesday at a tense meeting interrupted by a protest and security guards intervening.

The 4-3 vote — with the board’s conservative majority tipping the balance — mirrored the board’s preliminary vote in August reopening the door to diet soda in school vending machines and stores.

The outcome represents a defeat for a coalition of health advocates who had ramped up efforts in recent weeks to oppose the measure, arguing that diet soda has no place in the state’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” for schools.

Education department officials said they recommended changes to the Healthy Beverage policy, including the new provision allowing diet soda in high schools, to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Even with the change, individual districts can decide not to stock the drinks.

Opponents of the rule change garnered more than 2,400 signatures on an online petition and showed up in force Wednesday, with parents and students speaking out against the rule change.

“Obesity and kids’ health is a complex issue that can’t be solved overnight,” said Leslie Levine, a research manager for LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit that promotes healthy eating and living. “To address it requires all of us — parents, community and schools — working together.”

A group of about a dozen Spanish-speaking parents from southwest Denver pleaded with the State Board to keep the ban. They told the board that while they try to practice healthy habits at home, students have too many unhealthy options at schools.

“We need you to support the work we do at home,” parent Ana Maria Munoz said through a translator.

School nutrition officials from some of the state’s largest school districts, however, told the State Board that the change would reduce the regulatory burden while allowing school districts to maintain their own wellness policies.

“Nutrition is a community-based decision and we need (community) input to help us make decisions,” said Danielle Bock, operations coordinator for the Greeley school district’s nutrition department.

Wednesday’s decision contrasts with a tide of recent efforts that aim to reduce Coloradans’ consumption of sweet drinks. The right-leaning State Board, however, believes it’s the responsibility of parents and not the public sector to curb unhealthy habits.

“There’s not a better regulator for this conduct than the parent,” said board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican.

Moments after the State Board voted, a group of parents organized by the activist group Padres y Jovenes Unidos stormed the chambers to voice frustration with the outcome.

“Please think about the students. Think about the future of the students,” said Gloria Borunda, who led the protest.

Durham called a recess and a security guard asked the crowd to leave.

Over the years, many advocates have lauded the state’s Healthy Beverage Policy for putting Colorado ahead of the curve. Healthy students are better learners, they say.

The beverage policy — passed by the State Board of Education in 2008 with a complete soda prohibition — governs the type, size and calorie count of beverages allowed in schools outside of the federally regulated school meal program.

At the time, there were no federal rules governing such beverages, but that changed in 2014. Opponents of diet soda in schools say those federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.

Wednesday’s vote comes six weeks before Boulder voters will consider levying a sales tax on soda and less than a year after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care by banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks.

Extra sleep

Two Colorado districts shift to later high school start times — for very different reasons

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

The 22,000-student Greeley-Evans school district in northern Colorado will join the 55,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver in adopting later high school start times this fall.

But unlike in wealthier Cherry Creek, the change in Greeley was not the result of a lengthy process to review research and solicit community feedback. Instead, the move came out of a very different conversation: How could the cash-strapped district tighten its belt?

After Greeley voters rejected a district tax measure last November, a chronic bus driver shortage loomed larger than ever. With no additional money to beef up driver salaries and more than a dozen driver vacancies, district officials needed to reduce the number of routes. They decided to discontinue busing for most high school students — part of a package of cuts that will save the district $667,000 a year.

That decision divorced the start time debate from the common concern that pushing high school bell times later requires more bus routes and more money.

“We were only able to move the high school start time by seriously limiting — in fact, almost eliminating — bus transportation for our high school students,” district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

She noted that all district students are eligible for free transportation on city buses. About two-thirds of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Later middle and high school start times have gained traction in Colorado and nationally in recent years with mounting evidence that teens are hardwired to go to bed later and wake up later. When school schedules align with sleep patterns, research shows students are healthier, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

Nationally, Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest districts to embrace later start times — pushing high school and most middle school start times to 8:45 a.m. last year, with plans to shift to 9 a.m. this year. Also, in what could be the first statewide start-time mandate in the country, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prohibit the state’s middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m.

In Colorado, the move to later start times has been relatively slow. Until March, when both the Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school boards voted on the schedule changes, only a few smaller districts had made the switch. They include Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado and Harrison in Colorado Springs.

Both Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley considered later high school start times in the last couple years, but ultimately shelved the idea. Boulder Valley officials said the prospect of increased transportation costs was one of the reasons they didn’t move forward.

In Denver, which currently doesn’t provide district busing to most high school students, administrators expressed concern about complicated transportation logistics, after-school sports schedules and conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Cherry Creek officials say the change in start times this coming year won’t cost the district more money.

In both Cherry Creek, the state’s fourth-largest district, and Greeley-Evans, the 13th largest, high school start times will shift 45 minutes to an hour later this year. In Cherry Creek, high schools will start at 8:20 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m., and in Greeley-Evans, high schools will start at 8 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m.

Other changes in Greeley-Evans include greater walk distances for students at all levels. That means high-schoolers won’t qualify for busing unless they live more than three miles from school, middle-schoolers won’t qualify unless they live more than two miles from school, and elementary kids won’t qualify unless they live more than 1.5 miles from school.

Myers said the new start times haven’t caused much consternation among parents.

“It’s more the transportation issue (that’s) causing some angst for some of our families,” she said. “We’re really going to watch and see how this impacts attendance and tardiness at our schools.”

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”