Honor Rolled

Parents in Boulder say their school-board members lied to them.

On December 13, 1999, Scott LeRoy's seven-year-olddaughter came home from Majestic Heights Elementary with a letter explaining that her school might close. The letter said that in order to save money, the Boulder Valley Board of Education planned to consolidate several schools within the city. The note came as quite a shock to LeRoy, since the district had promised him and many other south Boulder parents that it wouldn't close schools -- at least not now and not in this way.

Their shock quickly turned to outrage, however. Their elected officials had apparently lied to them.

Two years ago, in the spring of 1998, school-board members created an uproar in Boulder when they proposed consolidating several elementary and middle schools. They said that by operating small schools in Boulder, they were being unfair to crowded schools in the burgeoning towns of Broomfield, Lafayette, Louisville and Superior; the largest elementary school in the district right now, Broomfield's Kohl Elementary, added portable buildings to hold its 676 students because it is only big enough for 664. Small schools in Boulder were costing about $1,300 more per student each year than the big schools in the eastern part of the district.

At around the same time, boardmembers wanted to put a bond issue on the ballot to relieve those packed classrooms by building two new schools in the east part of the county and adding classrooms to another. Parents in Boulder couldn't believe they were being asked to support a tax increase for new schools to the east when their own schools were at risk of closing. They vented their anger repeatedly during public meetings, and within weeks, school-board members backed off from their plan.

In August 1998, boardmember Julie Phillips suggested to her colleagues that they pass a resolution promising not to even discuss school closings until 2001. The board passed the resolution, and to further assuage Boulder voters, they included money for repairs and improvements for Boulder schools in the bond.

Parents were so happy with the board's apparent change of heart that they rewarded it by overwhelmingly supporting the $63.6-million bond initiative, mailing out information and explaining its importance to voters. In November 1998, the bond passed, along with a $10.6 million referendum that was intended to cover the operating costs and extra academic programs. More than 60 percent of voters district-wide approved both measures, while a whopping 88 percent of Boulder residents voted in favor of them.

Then came the letter.

"Last we'd heard, there was a moratorium on closing any schools," says LeRoy, who, along with other parents, had been reminded of the board's promise not to close schools by BVSD legislative and community affairs liaison Mike Thomson during an October meeting at Majestic Heights Elementary School.

Janis Sherwood, another Majestic Heights parent who attended the meeting, says Thomson "looked us straight in the eye and told us there would be no consideration of consolidation until 2001."

But on January 27, the board voted 6-1 to consolidate five elementary schools. This fall, students from Majestic Heights and Aurora 7 will attend Martin Park, while students from the Boulder Community School of Integrated Studies, which is housed at Majestic Heights, and High Peaks, a focus school located inside Martin Park, will move to Aurora 7. In all, 700 children will be uprooted.

"I warned Majestic Heights parents that their school was in grave danger," Thomson says, countering the parents' version. "I did say it was my judgment that they might have a year to do what they could to save their school because I thought it would be difficult for the school board to pull something off for the next school year, given the timeline."

The school-board members, it seems, had given themselves a way out of honoring their 1998 resolution by including in it a provision that allowed them to break the moratorium if "material changes occur in [the district's] economic situation." And this was the excuse they used to vote for consolidation.

Early this school year, the district discovered that the cost of its employee health-insurance plan had unexpectedly risen by $1 million. In addition, it had planned for a 2.5 percent attendance increase this year and had hired twenty new teachers to handle that growth. But when an enrollment tally was completed in early October, officials learned that attendance had increased by less than 1 percent.

Boardmembers soon realized that if they didn't do something, they'd face a $3 million budget shortfall next year. By consolidating schools and not replacing teachers who retire or quit, they figured they could save $400,000 a year.

But the resolution also states that "any decision to close or consolidate school programs is a complex matter which requires consideration of many factors in addition to economics, including...student achievement, neighborhood impacts, choice, open-enrollment policies and transportation."

Since parents didn't find out about the looming budget crisis until December, however, they say they never got a chance to address any of those other issues. Now they feel betrayed and are seeking revenge.


Janusz Okolowicz is the only school-board member who voted against the consolidation. He says he foresaw financial problems back in June, when the board was deliberating over the 1999-2000 budget, but that board president Stan Garnett discouraged further discussion. "I believe there was a movement to keep it under wraps until after the election," he says. "Every time I brought it up at a board meeting, the other boardmembers accused me of bringing it up for political reasons." Okolowicz was running for re-election at the time.

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