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Despite public calls, Jeffco school board votes to close 16 elementary schools

The Jeffco School Board has unanimously approved Superintendent Tracy Dorland’s recommendation to close 16 elementary schools at the end of this school year.

The district made the recommendation in Augustas part of a plan to address a declining enrollment trend that has accelerated during the pandemic.

The district is running a budget shortfall and has now taken $32 million from its reserves to cover this year’s expenses. Leaders expect closing and consolidating schools will save up to $12 million. The district can also increase its income later if it sells or rents out the vacant properties.

But Dorland and council members said closing schools was not just about saving money. They are also concerned that the district’s smaller schools may not be able to offer fair or rigorous curricula like larger schools can.

For example, some of the schools slated for closure can only afford a few teachers, so they must have students of mixed grades in a classroom. This means teachers have fewer peers to collaborate with, have to make multiple lesson plans, and can juggle multiple teaching resources.

Like other school districts, Jeffco funds its schools largely based on student numbers; thus, smaller schools receive less operating funds than larger ones. The district, in turn, also receives state and federal operating funds per student. Subsidizing small schools draws money from other programs.

Jeffco, the second largest district in the state, had 14% fewer children under 18 in 2020 living within its boundaries as of 2000. Enrollment in the district has been declining for many years. The current estimate of students this fall is 77,205, down from 87,700 in 2000.

The district selected the 16 schools using three criteria. They all had fewer than 220 students as of August 15 or were using less than 45% of their building’s capacity at the time. Each school also had to be close to another that could accommodate students.

In total, the district said the closures would displace nearly 2,600 students and affect the equivalent of about 422 full-time jobs.

The recommended closures have left some parents with a lot of questions and worries.

Some question whether the designated receiving school will have capacity for all new pupils. Others worry that academics have not been considered, and neither has school programming.

One of the schools on the closing list, Colorow, had just achieved its International Baccalaureate elementary school status this fall, for example, one of four elementary schools in the district to have the program.

Lisa Siler, center, sits with her son, Logan, 6, and daughter, Addison, 9, as the school board discusses closing 16 elementary schools. The children attend Wilmore Davis Elementary, one of the schools on the closing list.

Joe Mahoney / The Colorado Sun

Another concern, the grouping of colleges and high schools has not yet been decided, some students could see their schooling disrupted more than once. The district said it will turn its attention to high school plans in January and may have recommendations for those schools next year.

A consultant’s report hired to help manage community engagement ahead of the vote said many families were unhappy and the consultants had to adjust their approach. Many parents wanted to talk about the recommendations and ask more questions, instead of just talking about their hopes after a transition.

Representatives from the Keystone Policy Center, the district’s outreach consultant, said they encountered a lot of misinformation and a lack of trust in the process.

Ahead of the vote Thursday night, parents and community members in public comments asked the district to reconsider. Later, some shouted as the council voted to end the meeting.

The district had set aside two hours for public comment, but only needed a little over an hour to accommodate those who registered.

One included Wheat Ridge council member Korey Stites, who criticized the engagement process and said the district was not communicating with city officials like him.

He said that if a more committed process resulted in the closure of schools in his community, he would be able to accept it.

“What I can’t understand is the fact that our opinions don’t matter,” Stites said.

Other parents have asked the council to table the recommendations until the district can find other ways to save money, such as cutting administrative staff or salaries and implementing furloughs. Another parent asked the district to first consult with an equity or anti-racism expert who could offer input on the plans.

In approving the closures, school board members noted that they amended their resolution to include new demands from district staff, including the creation of a transition plan, a new Title 1 allocation plan, and at-risk students, an analysis of transportation needs and required adjustments, and an engagement plan to create recommendations on what to do with empty or underutilized buildings. Board member Paula Reed refuted criticism that community engagement ahead of the vote, including at least 16 hours of public commentary, was just a performance.

“It means a lot to hear people speak so passionately about their schools. It makes it harder and that’s probably how it should be,” Reed said. “That shouldn’t be an easy thing to do.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected]

A seated woman leans on the shoulder of a seated man to comfort him.  They are both wearing gray t-shirts that read

Sara Stites, center, comforts her husband Korey Stites after the Jeffco School Board voted to close 16 elementary schools, including Kullerstrand Elementary School where their children are educated. Val Nosler-Beck reaches out from behind and pats Sara Stites on the shoulder.

Joe Mahoney / The Colorado Sun

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