Nothing instills fear in homeowners like threats to their quality of life and the possibility of declining property values. The fear is so palpable among residents living near a vacant lot at 84th Avenue and Simms Street that more than a hundred of them endured a community meeting two weeks ago in an un-air-conditioned church. They wanted to voice their concerns about a potential new neighbor: a 43,600-square-foot charter school.
But this is about more than just traffic and noise in a quiet neighborhood. It's about the biggest challenge facing charter schools. In the decade since the Colorado Legislature approved such specialized schools, 95 have opened their doors, focusing on everything from "the basics" to the arts. But even that isn't meeting the demand. Some facilities have up to 2,000 students on their waiting lists, and fifteen new charter-school applications are currently under consideration across the state.
"Five or seven years ago, the primary issue for charter schools was funding," says Denise Mund, senior consultant for the Schools of Choice unit at the Colorado Department of Education. "Now the number-one issue is facility financing." And finding the space to actually build a school.
For the past eight years, Excel Academy, which offers a back-to-basics curriculum known as Core Knowledge to its 180 K-8 students, has been leasing a 9,000-square-foot storefront in an Arvada strip mall. But with 150 students on its wait list, Excel head Dennis Corash decided the school needed a room of its own -- a much bigger room. Last summer he entered negotiations with a Wheat Ridge church whose congregation was planning to move. The church leaders had a change of heart, however, and the deal fell through the day Corash went to sign on the dotted line. He resumed his search and several months later found some property in a light-industrial area of Arvada. But in May, the Arvada planning commission turned down his request for the land. Property taxes cannot be collected from schools, and they didn't want to lose income from the site.
Corash appealed to the Jefferson County Board of Education, which upheld the commission's decision and told Excel to work with neighbors at any site it might find. Jefferson County Public Schools and the City of Arvada offered to help Excel locate available land, and city planners suggested other industrial sites, but Corash did not want to pursue them, having already been turned down once. A site at 60th Avenue and Easley Road, which appealed to both the city and Corash, was one the school district didn't want to part with. "That area is brand-new, and there's more room to work," explains Mike Elms, community development director for the City of Arvada. "But the school board hasn't made that site available to Excel because they may need it in the future for an elementary school."
Instead, the school board directed Corash to the smaller, more difficult parcel on Simms, which is valued at $381,150. "We were told by the district that if we wanted a piece of property, this was it," Corash says.
The neighbors have a different view entirely. They are worried that the 7.7-acre site may be too small for Excel's proportions, as Corash hopes to someday accommodate 435 students, a 55-car parking lot and a soccer field.
According to Elms, it's not uncommon for a school of that size to be located on fewer than ten acres. Unfortunately, three of the seven acres Excel plans to occupy are located in a floodplain. To mitigate that situation, Corash wants to use an adjacent city park for recreation -- and that has neighbors conjuring images of hundreds of teens overtaking their family gathering spot.
"That land has always been zoned for a school, but we expected it to someday be a neighborhood public school that our kids could use," says Craig West, president of the Lakecrest Cape Homeowners Association. "Now we're getting something that's not appropriate for the size and that doesn't meet the expectation of the neighborhood."
The issue soon became more heated than high noon in August. "The charter school is supposed to notify neighbors, and from everything I know, Excel didn't do that, and they didn't do it before the first site they picked out," says Jeffco school-board member Karen Litz. "They even tried to move into my [Wheat Ridge] neighborhood without informing the neighbors."
This isn't the first time a neighborhood has gone through such a fight. Three years ago, Broomfield residents sued Jefferson Academy Charter School after it added a high school building and an athletic field without informing them ("Graded on a Curve," September 21, 2000). The case went to the Colorado Court of Appeals, where the residents' claims were declared moot or were denied because, the judges said, charter schools enjoy governmental immunity.
Additionally, the state's Charter School Act only requires people seeking to charter a new school to notify neighbors. But, says Jeffco school-board president Debby Oberbeck, "The intent of the law is that communication happens with neighbors whether they're applying for a charter or relocating."
Corash admits he didn't contact anyone, but says that's because he thought it would be premature. "We haven't held community meetings because it's not our property yet," he explains. He was, however, open with residents who called, which is how San Marino Homeowners Association president Nancy Seele found out about the school. Everyone from the county to the school district had given her the "royal runaround," she says, until she reached Corash, who explained precisely what he was envisioning for the property.
Once the neighbors found out what was going on, they got organized. Approximately 900 homes surround the site, and their occupants wasted no time in inundating city officials, school-board members and state legislators with letters and phone calls. One of the recipients was Senator Sue Windels of Arvada, who had pushed to assemble an interim legislative committee to study charter schools this summer. Her effort failed for lack of funding, but she plans to try again next session.
"We've had charter schools for ten years now, and it's always good to take a comprehensive look and see where we are. Are they effective academically? Is there adequate accountability? Do they have a negative impact on traditional schools? We have no answers to those questions," Windels says.
One thing that's become apparent is that charter schools are no longer content to make do with less. "When charter schools first started, the founders were so excited to have a school that they were willing to be in substandard facilities. But there's another generation that's come in and said, 'Now it's time to be on comparable footing with other schools,'" says the state education department's Mund.
That's exactly what Corash is asking of Arvada. Just before the recent community meeting at the church, Corash submitted a site plan to the city, which has thirty days to either approve or deny it.
"The last thing we wanted to do was go in and raise the ire of a community," Corash explains. "We don't disagree with what the neighbors are saying. We're just caught in the middle."
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