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.

Funding fight

Colorado poised to slash funding for controversial student health survey

Two years after a controversial student health survey sparked protracted debate at the State Board of Education, questions about the survey’s value have moved to the state legislature — and could mean a loss of $745,000 in state funding for the biennial data collection effort.

Funding for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which comes primarily from the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Funds, was not included in the proposed state budget earlier this spring and may not return despite requests by the state health department to restore the money.

The health survey is given to a sample of Colorado middle school and high school students in scores of districts every other year. It asks about topics ranging from nutrition to risky behavior, and proponents say it’s crucial for tracking trends and crafting interventions when trouble spots arise.

In addition to $745,000 in state dollars, the survey is funded with $89,000 in federal money. State health department officials said determining whether the survey could continue in a slimmed-down form if state money is stripped away depends on the federal budget.

“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the only comprehensive survey on the health and well-being of Colorado youth,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement. “Without funding, we won’t be able to provide the kind of credible health information schools, community groups and local public health agencies need to improve the health of the young people they serve.”

The state Senate is expected this week to debate the state’s budget. The House will debate the budget after the Senate completes its review.

The health survey became the focus of a debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office in 2015 after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission — called active consent — in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 26-year history, most districts have chosen passive consent, which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules. State officials emphasized throughout the controversy that the survey is anonymous and voluntary. After the state board uproar over the survey, most districts continued to participate.

On Monday, Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who helped write the state’s budget, said of the survey, “I think enough of us felt that it was just intrusive. I just don’t think it collects good data.”

Not all on the budget committee agreed.

“I support the survey,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. “Our school districts rely on that information for other grant programs. It is possible in the budget process we’re able to restore that.”

Chalkbeat Colorado’s deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report. 

red zone

Traffic pollution: an invisible health risk for dozens of Denver schools

PHOTO: Google Maps - Street View
Interstate 70 is clearly visible from the playground outside Swansea Elementary School in Denver.

Just a few hundred feet from the front doors of Highline Academy Charter School’s southeast Denver campus is Interstate 25, where more than 200,000 vehicles rush by each day.

At Swansea Elementary School in north Denver, kids frolic near the busy Interstate 70 overpass that abuts the playground. Three miles west, at a charter school called STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, the same highway looms just past a chain link fence next to the school.

The three schools are among 29 in Denver Public Schools — 10 of them charters — that sit near high-traffic roads and the invisible air pollution those routes generate daily. Experts say such pollution can stunt lung development, aggravate asthma and contribute to heart disease, but there’s little public awareness about the problem and mitigation efforts are sparse.

A new online mapping tool, part of a joint investigative project by two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, puts the issue in stark relief. Residents across Colorado and the nation can easily check which schools fall into red zones where traffic volume, and the accompanying air pollution, is worst, and orange zones where traffic volume is lower, but still potentially problematic for kids and staff who may spend long hours at their schools.

PHOTO: Center for Public Integrity and Reveal
This screen shot of the mapping tool shows Highline Academy’s proximity to Interstate 25 with a blue pin.

The Center for Public Integrity provided Chalkbeat with raw data for schools with Denver addresses. While most were DPS schools, a couple dozen were schools in neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek, Aurora, Westminster, Mapleton, Sheridan and Jefferson County.

Eleven DPS schools — educating more than 8,000 students — fell into the red zone, which means they sit within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average. Those include charters such as Highline and Strive Prep – Sunnyside, and traditional public schools such as Swansea and Steele elementaries and George Washington, Lincoln and East high schools.

Another 18 district schools, plus one in the Cherry Creek district and one in the Adams 12 district, fall into the orange zone, which includes schools that are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles and more than 500 trucks daily. The 18 DPS schools include two additional STRIVE – Prep locations, two schools inside the downtown administration building and the district’s magnet school for students designated as highly gifted: Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

DPS officials say air pollution resulting from schools’ proximity to busy roadways hasn’t been discussed previously and that mitigation measures — such as high-grade air filters — aren’t in place at most affected schools.

“We haven’t had this conversation before,” said district spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Sometimes schools end up near busy roadways because that’s where districts can buy cheap land. But population growth, development trends and major transportation projects can also dramatically change the fabric of a school neighborhood. Swansea Elementary, for example, was built in 1957, before I-70 sliced through north Denver in the 1960s.

The problem of traffic-related air pollution near schools is not exclusive to big cities like Denver. It can be found in suburban and rural areas around the state and the rest of the country. Many school districts across Colorado — from Montrose to Steamboat Springs to Greeley — have at least one school within 500 feet of high-traffic routes.

Charters harder hit

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, which looked at trends nationwide, found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be located close to busy roads.
That’s true in Denver, where 22 percent of the district’s charter schools were located near a busy road during the 2014-15 school year, compared to 13 percent of other district schools. Nationwide, about 9 percent of schools are near busy roads, according to the analysis.

Officials at the most impacted Denver charter schools had little to say about the issue of traffic pollution.

Christine Ferris, executive director of Highline Academy, wrote in an email: “We can’t really do much about our location and although it would be obvious to anyone who visits us, having the information highlighted on Chalkbeat isn’t my favorite idea.”

She canceled a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat.

Chyrise Harris, senior director of communications and marketing for the STRIVE Prep charter group, said via email, “STRIVE Prep operates all of its schools in district facilities and works collaboratively with the district to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to a safe, high quality school near them.”

Jessica Johnson, general counsel and director of policy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said in growing cities like Denver there’s limited inventory when it comes to school sites. Charter schools may end up along high-traffic routes because that’s where the chartering district has vacant space and also because such roads provide needed proximity to bus or train stops.

Of the 10 Denver charter schools near busy roads, seven are in district-owned buildings. The three that aren’t are Highline, Cesar Chavez Academy and Justice High School.

While Johnson said being close to busy roads is a fact of life for urban charter schools, she noted the impact of traffic-related air pollution is an important health and wellness issue — one that hasn’t been on the charter community’s radar.

“This isn’t an issue that we’ve seen a lot of research into locally or a lot of conversation on,” she said.

Mitigation measures

Vehicle exhaust contains a variety of harmful components, including small particles, carbon monoxide and carcinogenic compounds. While outdoor areas like school playgrounds and sports fields pose an obvious risk, the air inside buildings can suffer, too, because particles, vapors and gases often seep inside.
High-grade air filters — those rated MERV 16 — can make a big difference. According to the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal investigation, MERV 16 filters installed in California schools caught about 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, which are key contributors to traffic-related health problems.

Denver schools use lower-grade filters, those rated either MERV 8 or MERV 10, according to district officials.

Air-conditioning can also help somewhat, allowing schools to keep some pollution at bay by shutting doors and windows in hot weather. Of the 29 DPS schools most impacted by roadway pollution, only four don’t have at least partial air-conditioning. Those are Valverde and Steele elementaries, Polaris at Ebert Elementary and STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside. While a handful of the 29 schools will get additional air-conditioning with funds from Denver’s recent voter-approved bond, those four are not on the list.

Swansea Elementary, the second most impacted Denver school after the southeast Highline Academy location, will be getting short-term and likely longer-term relief from traffic pollution.

Renteria said as part of a project underway now, the school is getting a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that will include MERV 16 filters. It will also get new doors and windows.

Additionally, a planned highway widening project will convert the current overpass next to Swansea to a covered below-grade route. Research from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests vehicle emissions are lower near below-grade roads with steep walls. The same is true for routes with certain kinds of sound barriers or roadside vegetation.

The city will monitor air quality on Swansea’s grounds during and after construction.

Here is the list of schools classified as “red” or “orange:”

Red Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
Highline Academy (southeast) Denver charter
Swansea Elementary School Denver
STRIVE PREP – Sunnyside Denver charter
Compassion Road Academy Denver
Steele Elementary School Denver
George Washington High School Denver
Respect Academy at Lincoln Denver
Abraham Lincoln High School Denver
College View Elementary School Denver
Valverde Elementary School Denver
East High School Denver

These “red zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average.

Orange Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
STRIVE Prep – Federal Denver charter
Columbian Elementary School Denver
Denver Center for International Studies Denver
Colfax Elementary School Denver
Cheltenham Elementary School Denver
The Odyssey School Denver charter
Contemporary Learning Academy Denver
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill Denver charter
Cesar Chavez Academy Denver charter
Girls Athletic Leadership School Denver charter
Bruce Randolph School Denver
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Denver charter
Emily Griffith Technical College Denver
Dora Moore ECE-8 School Denver
Justice High School Denver charter
Polaris at Ebert Elementary School Denver
Bromwell Elementary School Denver
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Denver charter
Challenge School Cherry Creek
North Star Elementary School Adams 12

These “orange zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day and more than 500 trucks on average.