CHARTER MEMBERS

WHEN TWO DPS TEACHERS DECIDED TO OPEN A NEW SCHOOL, THEY DISCOVERED THEY HAD A LOT TO LEARN.

Most residents have owned their homes for two decades or more. The owners' median age is fifty. Their children have gone to school, graduated from college, married and moved on.

"If there's a 3 percent turnover in house sales, I'd be surprised," says Betty Ann Tichenor, vice president of the local neighborhood group, the Virginia Village/Ellis Community Association.

In its former life, Ash Grove served generations of children from this southeast Denver neighborhood. But its school days ended thirteen years ago, when DPS closed Ash Grove and leased the building to the Denver Parks and Recreation Department as a senior center.

Soon after, the neighborhood group began complaining that DPS was not maintaining the Ash Grove building or its grounds.

Since the lease ran out a couple of years ago, the parks department has been occupying the building on a month-to-month basis, paying what deputy manager Rod Lister concedes is "a very, very small amount" of a few thousand dollars a year.

That small amount doesn't begin to cover the cost of operating the building, much less maintaining the grounds, Tichenor charges. She says she has been told by DPS officials that operating costs for Ash Grove run between $65,000 and $70,000 a year.

But replacing the parks department with Thurgood Marshall would not necessarily be an improvement, Tichenor says. In fact, she claims, turning the building into a school again would renege on a promise the DPS made to residents several years ago.

In August 1992 Larned Waterman, the school district's assets manager, wrote a letter to the neighborhood association assuring the group that DPS "would not seek to add additional uses to those uses presently occupying the Ash Grove Elementary School until such time as a Strategic Asset Management Plan has been adopted by the Board of Education."

Waterman, who did not return Westword's calls, had written that he expected the management plan to be approved in early 1993. After that, he said, DPS staff would "prepare Action Plans for each school property that has ceased or will cease to be used...We are committed to prepare such an Action Plan for Ash Grove, with close neighborhood involvement, immediately after the Strategic Plan has been approved.

"We appreciate your bringing your concerns to us, and we will make every effort to be a good neighbor."

In May 1994, then-DPS superintendent Evie Dennis wrote to Tichenor regarding continued neighborhood complaints about the Ash Grove property. Dennis claimed that maintenance of the building and its site was the responsibility of the city, according to the terms of the lease. (Parks deputy Lister disagrees.)

But in any event, the situation would soon change, she said. "The Asset Management Plan has been written and has been used to guide much of our planning," Dennis wrote. "I expect to have the Plan presented for adoption by the Board in the very near future...As promised you, the Ash Grove facility will be one of the first plans to be prepared. Your neighborhood association will be contacted and their input will be actively solicited."

In the meantime, though, DPS didn't pay much attention to the property. Weeds grow in the parking lot, the building hasn't been painted in a decade, "and no one has shoveled snow from the sidewalk along Mexico Avenue in twenty years," Tichenor says.

But for the neighborhood association, the district's failure to keep up the property pales beside the possibility that Ash Grove might become a school again.

It wasn't until January that Tichenor's group learned that, despite the district's promises, the Ash Grove building had been suggested as a site for Thurgood Marshall--without anyone from DPS consulting the neighborhood.

Most neighbors don't want a new generation of children, many of whom don't even live in the neighborhood, at Ash Grove. In particular, residents have concerns about middle-school kids, who Tichenor, a former junior high teacher from New York, describes as "having the vast majority of discipline problems."

Some backyards abut the school's north parking lot. Before Thurgood Marshall's moving in became a possibility, the district rejected a neighborhood proposal that a fence be built between the school property and the backyards.

Tichenor's yard is a stone's throw from the school building. "When the gym is used by even a few people," she says, "I can be inside my house, with the doors and windows closed, and still hear the noise."

Booth sympathizes with the neighbors' concerns but says they're worrying unnecessarily over the impact Thurgood Marshall might have on the area. "Basically, DPS has been a slum landlord," she says. "We have a tough job ahead of us to change that feeling, and we do that by being good neighbors."

She feels the school can do that. Still, she wonders if DPS intentionally erected another hurdle when it suggested Thurgood Marshall consider the Ash Grove facility--particularly when Ash Grove's neighbors weren't notified in advance of their potential new neighbor.

"All we need is a chance," Booth says. "Well, that and a charter."
But at this point, the neighborhood doesn't seem interested in giving them that chance. The association has been successful in stopping other attempts to use the Ash Grove building, and it's done its homework on this one, too. Tichenor says she's discovered that declining enrollment has left many DPS schools only 40 to 60 percent full. Charter schools should be placed in those buildings, she suggests, perhaps sharing them with public schools.

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