agonizing choices

Jeffco board votes to close one elementary school in budget cuts, sparing four others

Students at Pleasant View Elementary and a visiting foster grandparent in 2016 (Jeffco Public Schools via YourHub)

Facing fierce community opposition, Jeffco Public Schools significantly scaled back a plan to slash the district budget, with the school board voting to close one elementary school after this school year and spare four others, at least for now.

In a meeting that ran into early Friday morning, the board voted unanimously to close Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, where 80 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty.

The schools avoiding closure at year’s end are Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Stober Elementary in Lakewood. Peck, Swanson and Stober will stay open in part because the board delayed adding sixth grade to the middle schools in those elementary schools’ area, making it impossible to shuffle students in a way that would work.

Two weeks ago, the school district staff laid out more than $20 million in recommended cuts after the failure in November of two tax measures that would have paid for building improvements and boosted teacher pay.

Along with the school closures, staff recommended eliminating all district social and emotional learning specialists, cutting the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level and closing a center at Wheat Ridge High School for gifted and talented students.

On Thursday night, after more than two hours of public testimony, Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee described a new, far less drastic plan: all those services would survive and the transition to a new middle school structure would wait a year as had originally been discussed last year, putting off some of the school closures.

The board gave the district approval for the alternative plan, deferring most of the district-level cuts rather than completely taking them off the table, until there is a more clear picture from the state about how much funding Jeffco will get.

McMinimee suggested that using money from retirement savings for now could get teacher and staff salary discussions moving until state funding becomes clearer this spring. Those savings, along with holding off on using reserves to build new classrooms and the district cuts that did move forward Thursday night, give the district approximately $19 million to use toward salary increases for district employees.

“The unanimous feedback that I have heard has asked my team and I to provide you all with some additional alternatives,” McMinimee told the board.

School board members voiced concerns with the original school closure plans, though they cited different reasons. Board members said they wanted the public to understand that the conversations on school closures will continue and that the facilities needs will persist, but said they hoped extra time would improve the process and increase community engagement.

“This will not be the conclusion of the school closure conversation,” said board member Amanda Stevens. “No facility decision I make tonight is driven by a desire to pay teachers. This will get harder.”

As one district staff member put it: “The buildings are going to be a year older. It’s not like wine. It doesn’t get better with age.”

In the decision to go back to an original timeline of moving sixth grade students into middle schools in 2018-19, board members also said they still are excited and support the change, but want to stick to the timeframe they had discussed last year.

The board struggled the most with their vote on Pennington Elementary. Ron Mitchell, the board president, said he was uncomfortable with the idea of voting to close the two schools that had the highest numbers of low-income students among the five schools. Board members stressed the decision likely was just postponing another discussion on closure, and board member Brad Rupert said he was not in favor of “kicking the can down the road.”

Pennington was also one of three schools that had not been on possible closure lists last year. Board members cited the short two-week notice as their reason for sparing Swanson and Peck, the other two schools that were not on lists last year.

Thursday night’s board meeting was packed by parents and community members from each of the schools facing closure. The main board room and overflow rooms were full. West Metro Fire was at the meeting controlling the public’s entrance into the building.

Parents, students and community members criticized the district’s recommendations, the process for selecting the schools and other cuts.

“I went to the Jefferson County board of education website and it has you guys talking about integrity and it says you strive to provide a quality education,” said Ruben Arambula a parent at Swanson Elementary. “In order for my kids to get this quality that you’re talking about, Swanson needs to stay open.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent, spoke at the board meeting, saying she understands difficult budget decisions, but said these school communities have strong neighborhoods that would take too big of a hit.

“Leaving our students stranded can never be a choice,” said Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent. “We must take the time to find another way.”

In recommending the schools that would close, the district considered 10 factors including the cost of building maintenance to keep schools open, low enrollment and the utilization of the building. The demographics of the schools and their academic performance were not considered.

The five school closures would have contributed about $3.5 million toward the more than $20 million in cuts the district proposed originally.

Although the full budget doesn’t have to be approved for a few more months, the district staff had asked the board to vote on these cuts now so that the money saved could be used as the board starts hiring for next year, and as they negotiate salaries for teachers and other district employees next year.

The school district’s bond request that failed in November would have contributed more than $12 million to improve employee salaries so that they are more competitive with neighboring districts. Since other districts did get voters to approve tax increases, the district worried that the gap between those salaries and the ones Jeffco provides would grow.

New buildings at stake

At stake in school closings: Tens of millions of dollars spent on recent improvements to targeted Detroit schools

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
Among the Detroit schools on the state's closure list is Osborn High School, which got a $5.7 million facelift in 2015 from a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

Parents, students and staff at the Fisher Upper Academy on Detroit’s east side gathered at the school last fall for an exciting announcement:

The Ford Fund, the carmaker’s philanthropic arm, planned to spend $5 million on a new “resource and engagement center” inside the school.

Parents were thrilled to learn that they and their neighbors would soon have access to services like job training and a food bank in the same building where their children go to school, said parent Kenya Tubbs, whose 12-year-old daughter Camille is in 7th grade.

“The 48205 needs a lot of things,” Tubbs said of the high-poverty zip code where Fisher Upper is located. “A lot of people would not come to a community center if they need a job or if they need food, but they’ll come to a school.”

But three months after that joyful announcement, Fisher Upper was named to the list of 38 Michigan schools that state officials have targeted for closure because of years of low test scores.

Now, the effort to unite social services with education on the east side of Detroit has been thrown into question.

“We’re moving forward in the event that things are resolved at the state level,” said Ford Fund spokesman Todd Nissen. “But at the same time, we have to monitor what happens between the state and the district.”

The turmoil at Fisher Upper is just one consequence of a school closure effort that’s focused largely on academics without much consideration for neighborhood impact or the loss of investment in schools. The closures could mean schools that have received tens of millions of dollars in recent years from taxpayers, corporate donors or community service organizations might soon be left vacant.

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Officials from the Detroit Public Schools and the Ford Fund visited Detroit’s Fisher Upper Academy in October to announce a $5 million investment in a new school-based community center. Three months later, the school learned it’s in danger of closing.

Among them is Mumford High School in northwest Detroit, which moved into a brand new $50 million building in 2012.

The new Mumford was paid for with $500.5 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2009. That money also built a new $22.6 million Gompers Elementary-Middle School in the Brightmoor neighborhood and paid for major improvements to Denby High School ($16.5 million) and Ford High School ($16.85 million).

All of those schools are on the closure list.

Among the 25 Detroit schools that have been targeted for closure by the state are several that have from tens of millions of dollars in recent renovations.

Also on the list are schools that benefited from major corporate and community investments such as Osborn High School. The Osborn building houses three small schools, all of which are on the closure list. It got a $5.7 million overhaul in 2015 from a Detroit-based nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

And other schools have been put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if test scores don’t improve this year. Spain Elementary is on that list. It got a $1.2 million upgrade last year with help from a $500,000 check from Lowe’s that was delivered to the school on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The 38 schools targeted in 2017 — including 25 in Detroit — were identified for closure because they landed on the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row.

The schools will be ordered to close in June unless officials from the state School Reform Office decide that closing them would represent a hardship to students.

Final decisions were expected to be made in the next few weeks but Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday that decisions likely won’t be made until May.

When they are made, they’ll be based on educational concerns — not buildings, said School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.

“The SRO is focused on our mission: to turn priority schools into the highest performing schools in the state,” Baker said in a statement. “We do this through academic accountability and have no statutory authority with the financing or operational components of schools.”

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Students at the Fisher Upper Academy have worked with the Ford Fund to determine what will be offered to the community if a $5 million resource center is built in their school but a threatened closure of the Detroit school has thrown plans into question.

Advocates warn that closing a school impacts more than just students and teachers.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools,” said Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO of Life Remodeled. “You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? …  How are funders going to trust that their commitments are going to be sustainable and fruitful in the future?”

Lambert’s organization raises money and recruits volunteers to renovate schools, parks and homes in Detroit neighborhoods. In addition to the major renovations at Osborn, Life Remodeled did an estimated $5 million in improvements to Cody High School, a three-school building with one school on the 2017 closure list and two on the possible 2018 list.

Lambert said he never would have raised the money or put years of effort into renovating those schools if he had any inkling that closures were looming.

“I asked at length,” he said. “We did hours and hours and hours of research into these schools, talking with DPS, funders, stakeholders, community leaders. We’ve got to make sure that we’re stewarding the donations … and using them wisely and all factors pointed to ‘These are schools to invest in.’ ”

But school closings were not expected until state lawmakers last year approved a $617 million financial rescue to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy. The new law included language requiring Baker’s office to close persistently low-ranking schools in the city.

The law specifies that the district (or the authorizer in the case of charter schools) “may not open a new school at the same location … within three years after the closure of the school unless the new school has substantially different leadership structure and substantially different curricular offerings than the previous school.”

Detroit school officials could, in theory, put new schools into closing buildings or move existing schools into them. But new schools would need to be approved by the School Reform Office and it’s not likely that the district would be ready to open new schools by September.

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
The non-profit Life Remodeled organized donations and volunteers to renovate Osborn High School, which could now be closed by the state.

Some school buildings could be snapped up by charter schools if the district is willing to sell them but negotiations and sales could take months or years so Detroit — a city riddled with vacant and blighted buildings — could soon get some more. And that will cost money.

“Even a very brief period of vacancy is going to result in scrappers getting into buildings,” said John Grover, a Loveland Technologies staffer who last year authored a comprehensive report on school closings and vacancies in Detroit.

Grover’s report, called A School District in Crisis, found that the city had 82 vacant school buildings last year. Most had been stripped, damaged by fire and had become dangerous, blighted eyesores in city neighborhoods.

Past school closings by the Detroit Public Schools cost the district an estimated $100,000 per school in one-time “mothballing costs” such as securing the buildings, removing equipment and  turning off water so pipes don’t freeze in the winter, Grover said. The district also spends roughly $50,000 per year per school to maintain and secure vacant buildings, he said.

“At the worst of times in 2012, they had so many [vacant school] buildings that they were monitoring all night long, they were out there playing a game of cat and mouse with the scrappers, going from one building to the next,” Grover said. “If you dump another 20 buildings into the school police department, that’s going to put a lot of strain on their resources … and they have a hard enough time dealing with active school buildings.”

It’s not clear who would cover the expense of securing vacant school buildings if they’re closed down by the state but the district, now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, owns the buildings. Some of the schools including Mumford, Ford and Denby are currently part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority but they are scheduled to revert back to the district this summer.

Baker said the state has “made no decisions” about who will pay expenses related to closures. A spokeswoman for the district said city schools do not have the resources to shoulder those costs. “We would definitely need assistance,” she said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”