Honor Rolled

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

By delaying the announcement until after the election, he says the district wasted several months that could have been spent investigating alternatives to consolidation.

Nevertheless, he says closing schools is probably necessary, since Boulder has proportionately more school buildings than any other Colorado school district; the Cherry Creek School District has 44 schools for its 40,000 students, while the Boulder Valley School District has 56 buildings for its 27,000 students. In addition, schools within the city of Boulder are attended by only 10,000 students, 3,000 of whom commute in from other parts of the county.

But Okolowicz would like to see the district cut costs by trimming central administration. "And there are other things we can do," he adds, "like asking employees to contribute to health care. If we deducted, say, $40 from their paychecks before taxes, it wouldn't impact employees that much but it would make a big difference in our budget." Like ten out of twelve metro Denver school districts, the BVSD pays its full-time workers' entire health-insurance premiums -- only Littleton Public Schools and Adams County District 50 don't. If the BVSD's 2,200 full-time employees contributed $40 a month to their plans, the district could save more than $1 million of its $6 million in yearly costs.

Okolowicz also says the boardmembers handled the consolidation in an insensitive way (he calls their December announcement "grinch-like") and didn't seem willing to consider alternatives provided by parents, who, even after reading the December 13 letter sent home with their children, were still under the impression that they'd be able to debate the issue at a January 18 public meeting. Instead, parents were directed in a January 14 letter from the district to arrive at the meeting prepared to discuss ways to make the transition to the new schools as smooth as possible.

The boardmembers' minds, it seemed, were made up.

"When we got to the meeting, which was held nine days before the vote, parents from different schools were told to split up into different rooms to discuss how to make the transition," says Karen Boelts, whose daughter goes to Majestic Heights. "But no one stood for it; we all said, 'We're not here to talk about transition, we're here to talk about the proposal.' On the night of the vote, after they let fifteen parents speak, they read from pre-written speeches about why they were voting for the consolidation. They could have at least tried to pretend they weren't reading from a speech."

Parents from Aurora 7 Elementary, the largest of the three neighborhood schools in question, came up with a plan that would have saved the district the same amount of money but that would have disrupted only 250 students, according to Okolowicz. They suggested bringing students from the neighborhood programs at Majestic Heights and Martin Park to Aurora 7 and having the Boulder Community School of Integrated Studies join the High Peaks focus school at Martin Park. "I thought that since the community came together and did such a splendid job of researching the whole thing -- which was superior to the work our administration did -- it was our duty to give their plan a hearing. But my proposal to consider that plan wasn't even seconded on the board," he says.

Okolowicz then suggested a resolution establishing ground rules for how consolidations will be handled in the future; he proposed that any future plans be announced to the public at least a year in advance. His fellow boardmembers rejected that resolution as well.

Stan Garnett insists he and his colleagues did not conspire to close schools before hearing from the public, and on the night of the vote, he read from a pre-written speech he describes as "eloquent." In it, he explained that twenty years ago, the board made the difficult decision to close three neighborhood elementary schools in Boulder -- Burke, which now houses a charter school; Paddock, which currently is home to an alternative high school; and Lincoln, which was sold to the Naropa Institute, a private college in central Boulder. Closing those schools, he said, ensured the vitality of two other neighborhood elementary schools -- Bear Creek and Mesa -- by increasing their enrollment.

"It is important to keep in mind the development and growth of the Boulder Valley School District," he wrote in his speech. "Fourteen separate districts were consolidated into the Boulder Valley in 1960, and over the years, as this district has grown, anyone who has watched the demographics of the district has known that decisions such as this would become inevitable. The reason is simple. The south Boulder that I grew up in, with teeming elementary schools at Paddock, Burke, Majestic Heights, Martin Park, Mesa and Bear Creek has changed. The hundreds and hundreds of kids that were going to those elementary schools when I was a young person have grown and moved out and have been replaced, as the neighborhoods have matured, by families without as many kids. This is nobody's fault, but it is a reality."

Or is it?

Boulder City councilmen Don Mock and Spense Havlick see a different reality. They wrote a letter to Garnett in January, after hearing about the consolidation, explaining that in their estimation, the number of school-aged children in Boulder will soon increase. In fact, they predict that 3,600 more houses and apartments will be built in Boulder, and they pointed out that another 1,500 are planned for areas that will be annexed by the city.

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