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.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.