Playtime Is Over

Parents in northwest Denver finally got their school -- or did they?

The ongoing saga over a proposed northwest Denver elementary school has taken an ironic turn. Parents who spent months trying to convince the Denver Board of Education to offer a dual-language/Montessori program at the new school found out last week that their wishes had been granted when the board voted 5 to 2 in favor of it -- but they are now being told that there may be no school in which to implement it.

Construction plans are being stalled by the Capuchin Franciscans, a Roman Catholic order that owns a monastery near the site of the new school -- between Zuni and Wyandot streets and 35th and 37th avenues -- as well as property that Denver Public Schools hopes to buy for the school's playing field.

"We have a legal agreement with them for a land swap and money exchange whereby some lands to the north will be theirs and others will be ours," says Mike Langley, executive director of facility management for DPS. "The agreement has two key aspects: One is to vacate 36th Avenue between Zuni and Wyandot streets so that the Capuchins can extend their property and so that kids won't be running across the street to get to the playground. The other stipulation, at the Capuchins' request, is that their portion of land be rezoned so they can build a small office and garages.

"If both of those stipulations aren't satisfactorily met, we can't buy the land we need, and we don't have a school."

The standard size for new elementary schools in Denver is between eight and ten acres; the lot slated for the new school, which is supposed to accommodate 550 students from preschool through sixth grade, is only 4.5 acres. The area set aside for the field, just south of 36th, is less than two acres. Because the lot is so small, there is no alternative for the play area.

"If all things come to pass, it's still only 60 percent of what we'd like. At this moment, we don't have another option for a new school," Langley says, adding that he doesn't know what the district will do if the zoning change is not granted and the Capuchins don't sell their land. He says there isn't another piece of property in the area that's big enough for a school and close enough to the four existing elementary schools -- Bryant-Webster, Columbian, Smedley and Valdez -- from which to draw the new school's students.

The Capuchin property currently contains an administration building and housing for the priests and monks who live there. According to Father Harvey Dinkel of the Capuchin Order, the friars want to build a new 3,600-square-foot administration building. But in order to expand in the residential area, the Capuchins need their land to be rezoned to a mixed-use property. Because parking is limited on the streets surrounding the monastery, they also want to build ten one-car garages. Dinkel confirms that the Capuchins aren't likely to sell their property to DPS unless the zoning change is granted. The school, which will be constructed with money from the November 1998 bond election, is supposed to open in the fall of 2001. The city council, which has the ultimate vote on the rezoning and street-closure requests, has not yet scheduled dates for public hearings on the issues.

Patrick Ridgeway, a parent who sat on the committee that recommended the dual-language/ Montessori program, in which both Spanish and English will be taught, says he understands the district's need to purchase the land where the field will be. "They're already dealing with minimum requirements for lot size. It's better to have more land, because it would be safer for the kids," he says. "But a lot of people have worked very hard for what we've got. It was a year's worth of effort, and it leaves me concerned. We all want this school built on time."

The agreement with the Capuchins was reached in the spring, while Rita Montero was still northwest Denver's school-board representative, and some community members are resentful because the current board -- which they see as being more open to their desires -- can't change what's already been done.

"The greater community needs to know that there were transactions made by the DPS and the Capuchins. They are bullying the community; if we don't give the Capuchins what they want, we don't get a new school," says northwest Denver parent Ellen Torres. "Those deals were made without input from the community. The DPS didn't look at any other properties. It's not an attitude of 'not in my neighborhood,' because everyone wants a new school here, but there's other property in northwest Denver, and the DPS already tore down a building that had sentimental value," she adds, referring to the old Mt. Carmel High School that was demolished to make way for the new school ("Atención, Por Favor!" April 29).

"We could have located property a few miles away that would have been the right size, but that wouldn't have been appropriate, since we're trying to have a neighborhood school where it's needed," Langley counters.

Residents like Torres object to the Capuchins' rezoning request because they say it will compromise the character of the historic Potter-Highland neighborhood. David Brehm, vice chairman of the Highland United Neighbors, Inc. (HUNI) planning and community development committee, which reviews all building projects in Highland to see if they fit in with the neighborhood, says that most of the residents he's talked to plan to remain silent at the rezoning hearings. City council members will base their decision on the public input they receive, according to Debbie Ortega, who represents northwest Denver on the council. But residents say they can't, in good conscience, speak in favor of the rezoning; if they speak out against it, however, it will harm their chances of getting a new school.

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