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.