In one of his first big moves as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Jason Glass has pledged to not recommend any schools be closed until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.
Last spring, the staff of then-Superintendent Dan McMinimee recommended that five elementary schools be closed, citing voters’ rejection of a tax increase to improve school buildings and board members’ direction that the district find a way to pay teachers more.
Ultimately, the school board voted to close one school but left the door open to revisit closures on a broader scale, citing soaring maintenance costs for aging buildings.
Glass said that barring any drastic changes, the second largest district in Colorado should be able to manage without closing schools a couple more years. According to his plan, if Jeffco needs to close schools, those recommendations would be discussed in 2019 at the earliest, for closure in the 2019-20 school year. Glass announced the plan in a letter posted Friday on his blog.
“It buys us the time to re-envision what the schools’ purpose and direction is,” Glass told Chalkbeat Monday. “Really, the purpose about this is to slow down.”
Glass said the idea for the change, just two months into his tenure as Jeffco superintendent, came after talking to people through his district tour, and after reviewing “historical documents and news coverage,” including Chalkbeat stories about the potential impacts of the proposed closures.
Glass is directing district officials to work on a new process for deciding if a school needs to close.
Then the next year will be spent concentrating on efforts to ward off closures, including helping schools create programs to better attract students, and planning other uses for unoccupied space in buildings with declining enrollment.
That could include bringing in nonprofit partners or government agencies that might also serve Jeffco students — an idea raised during the most recent school closure discussions. One Jeffco school that was not being considered for closure last spring is moving forward with a similar approach under what is known as a community school model.
“There’s an entrepreneurial stance that has to be a part of this,” Glass said. “We need to be thinking of the type of schools the district has and about how can we use the space the district has to create opportunities for our families.”
If school closures are necessary in the future, the district will use whatever new process is created to make those decisions. Denver Public Schools in late 2015 adopted a new “bright line” school closure policy meant to use more objective criteria, but had to revise it after the first year it was put into practice was marred by challenges and setbacks.
The Jeffco closure plan will apply to district-run schools, not charter schools. Glass said charter schools will continue to be managed under their individual contracts unless the schools ask to renegotiate those.
The current school board majority generally supports Glass’s position on school closures, said board president Ron Mitchell. But three of the five seats are in play in this November’s election, and a different board could direct Glass to reconsider the plan.
Glass said any new closure criteria should consider a number of factors, including equity, school performance and the school’s context in the community.
“It is a numbers conversation, but it’s broader than that,” Glass said. “Performance, equity, service to the community, disruption to the community, entrepreneurial approaches, aspirations — all should be part of the calculus. If you have a school closure process that does not recognize all of those things it’s really not complete and they end up coming up one way or another.”
John Ford, president of the Jeffco teachers union, said creating a new plan will take time but is necessary to consider impacts for disadvantaged communities and students of color — which were not factors for staff in the last round of recommended closures. A recent study found school closures disproportionately affect students of color and often don’t help student learning.
“I think we learned our lessons from last year and the process we attempted to use when we closed Pleasant View,” Ford said. “There were some pieces missing.”
In the last discussion the district had about school closures, one school on the list, Peck Elementary in Arvada, was a high-performing school that had won state awards. School community members asked the school board to consider the school’s good work with students. Ultimately, one board member did cite that in his vote to spare the school.
Debbie Hansen, a mother of three children at the school, said parents are relieved by Glass’s announcement.
“We can finally breathe,” Hansen said. “I think that if you get a fuller picture, you’re able to understand better the impact that you have if you realize you might be closing down good schools. I think it’s great to have that broader sense of everything.”