'very difficult choices'

Five Jeffco Public Schools recommended for closure under budget-cutting plan

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaking to reporters in early 2017 (photo by Eric Gorski).

The Jefferson County school district is proposing closing five schools in a cost-cutting move to meet a school board directive to better pay teachers and staff, Superintendent Dan McMinimee told reporters Thursday.

McMinimee’s comments came hours before a board meeting where the names of the schools will be publicly announced.

Given enrollment trends in Jeffco, it’s likely that the schools slated for closure will include some along the district’s eastern border with Denver. Those schools, which serve large populations of students living in poverty, have been the focus of recent district and community efforts to boost academic achievement.

“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”

The proposed closures are part of an effort to save between $20 million and $25 million, with the goal of spending that amount on attracting and retaining high-quality educators. Jeffco teachers on average are paid about $10,000 to $15,000 a year less than their peers in other metro area districts, McMinimee said, making it difficult to meet the district’s goal of ensuring every classroom has exceptional educators.

The school board decided to make spending on compensation a priority in November, after voters rejected a bond request for capital improvements and a tax increase that would have helped boost teacher salaries.

The 86,000-student district also anticipates a drop in enrollment, which will mean less money from the state. A change in property tax assessments also could cost Jeffco an estimated $10 million in state revenue, McMinimee noted.

The board will not be making any decisions Thursday. School principals were notified earlier in the day that their schools are being recommended for closure, McMinimee said. He called the closure recommendations “very difficult choices.”

The district identified the schools after considering nine or 10 criteria, among them enrollment trends and the condition of the buildings, he said. According to data provided by the district, enrollment is declining in the Edgewater, Jefferson and Alameda areas along Denver’s western boundary. Some Arvada schools also have many empty seats.

Fewer than 120 teachers and staff will be impacted by the closures, and McMinimee said he expects most will be offered other positions in the district. Between 300 and 500 positions come open per year, either because of one-year contracts elapsing or people moving on, he said.

As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings, many of which are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking away earnings from that.

All five Jeffco school board members won election in 2015 after a bitter recall campaign that saw the ousting of three conservative board members who hired McMinimee for the superintendent’s job. The recall had strong backing from the teachers union; the union also supported the candidates who swept to power and now hold all five seats.

This month, the school board voted to begin a search for a new superintendent while McMinimee still has six months remaining on his contract.

Chalkbeat’s Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report. 

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline, and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14, and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”