Graded on a Curve

Field of screams: David Rapier has heard enough from Jefferson Academy.
Mark A. Manger

The small neighborhood where David Rapier lives used to be a quiet place. The ranch homes in this agricultural area west of Old Wadsworth Boulevard are spread far apart; most houses sit on one-acre lots. Some people keep horses, others raise llamas. There are no streetlights or sidewalks, just semicircular driveways laid with gravel.

But the population boom in the northwest Denver suburbs, coupled with a growing desire for alternatives to regular public schools, has conspired to unload minivans full of kids smack in the middle of this tranquil neighborhood. "The noise goes on seven days a week," Rapier says. "It starts early in the morning and goes late into the evening."

Parents drive from as far away as Golden to bring their kids to Jefferson Academy Charter School, and for good reason: The school, with its back-to-basics curriculum, is renowned for its education achievements. Last year, 87 percent of its third-graders scored at the advanced proficiency level in reading on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.

As a result, enrollment has surged since 1994, when Jefferson Academy opened as an elementary school with 189 students; two years later, it successfully applied for another charter to add a middle school. This year is the first that a high school will be part of the campus, and 650 kids now attend kindergarten through eleventh grade; grade twelve will be added next year, bringing the total enrollment up to 730. The school has a waiting list of more than 2,600 names. Because Jefferson Academy can't satisfy the demand, its founders have helped establish two similar charter schools in the area -- Lincoln Academy and Woodrow Wilson Academy.

In fact, Jefferson Academy has become the jewel in the state's charter-school system -- and a favorite of Governor Bill Owens, who last week presented the school with its third School of Excellence Award, an honor he and the Colorado Department of Education bestow upon only a few schools each year. Owens pointed to schools like Jefferson Academy last spring when he unveiled his controversial new education-reform plan that calls for public schools that do poorly on the annual CSAP tests to be converted into charter schools. As one of the original proponents of charter schools as a state senator, he has also continued to work to increase funding for them since he was elected. In fact, of the state's eighty charter schools, 29 have opened since fall 1998, when Owens was elected.

But neighbors like Rapier say the school's success and its ties to the Owens administration -- Jefferson Academy board president Denise Mund works as a consultant for the state Department of Education -- have enabled it to break rules that anyone else would be punished for. They assert that the school got away with adding the new high school and an athletic field without permission from Jefferson County authorities. Now they are suing.

The trouble started this summer, when the 28,000-square-foot high school and an adjacent athletic field were being built behind the elementary school; without informing nearby homeowners, construction crews began working early in the morning, and during pre-season sports practices and scrimmages, the noise from the field was so loud that people had to shut their doors and windows just to hear the evening news.

The increased traffic from the new high school has also turned the area into a jumble of cars in the morning when students arrive, in the evenings when they leave and on weekends, during sporting events. One morning last week, Rapier and some of his neighbors stood at the three inroads to the school and counted 518 cars. They convinced the county to install no-parking, no-standing and no-stopping signs along their streets; parking-by-permit-only signs are on the way.

At Jefferson Academy's first high school varsity-football game on September 9, Rapier brought a sound-reading device over to his next-door neighbor's lawn, which is directly across the road that runs behind the football field, about fifty feet from the area where the visiting team stands during games. Rapier says he recorded noise in the 82- to 90-decibel range; the county says the sound level should only be 55 decibels at the school property boundary.

Rapier and Cheryl Holliday, who lives on 99th Avenue, which runs alongside the school, say the field wouldn't be such a problem if there was a proper buffer between it and their homes; instead, they say, too much is being crammed onto only fourteen acres, which doesn't allow enough space for sound to dissipate.

But rather than applying to Jefferson County for a site-plan review -- a standard process of safety inspections and assessments of neighborhood impacts that is required of any builder before permits can be issued -- the school went ahead and built the high school and athletic field, complete with a press box and scoreboard, without any county oversight.  

Rapier is convinced that school officials purposefully skirted the process because they knew their plans would be closely examined by the county. Once residents discovered the absence of a site-plan review in May, they complained to the county planning and zoning department, which promptly issued a cease-and-desist notice that stated: "The Jefferson County zoning resolution requires site approval for public facilities." At the end of the notice was this warning: "Due notice to desist and abate the above violation is hereby given. This will be your only notice! Failure to comply with the zoning resolution within 30 days shall result in immediate legal action."

But Mund and Jefferson Academy attorney Barry Arrington point out that until August, state law allowed charter schools to submit plans to the Colorado Department of Labor directly. It was the labor department, Arrington explains, that issued the school its building permits and conducted inspections. The Jefferson County Board of Education approved the charter for the high school with the understanding that it would be located on that site, he adds, and when the school presented its plans to the county school board last summer, they were approved. Since construction on the high school and field started -- and ended -- before a new state law took effect, Arrington says Jefferson Academy did nothing wrong. (Last legislative session, the state statute on building requirements for schools was amended to clarify that charter schools must comply with county planning rules.)

Mund adds that neighbors had ample time to speak their minds. In March 1999, long before Jefferson Academy started construction, she says school officials distributed fliers to nearby homes inviting residents to a meeting at which their plans would be discussed. Mund says only eight neighbors showed up. (Rapier says that's because only the four homes closest to the school received the fliers). "I personally believe that a child's education should be the number-one priority of a community," she says. "Several neighbors have said they think we have a great school -- just not in their neighborhood. Well, my kids make a mess in my house, but I'd sure rather have kids. Kids should not be casualties for adults who can't get along."

County planner Susan Wood explains that the county did not seek legal action against the school despite its harsh warning because Jefferson Academy met with the planning and zoning department in June, though just for an introductory meeting; the school didn't officially apply for a county review until August.

But Rapier believes Jefferson Academy may have also benefited from its connections to the Republican pro-charter school administration of Governor Owens. Arrington, for instance, was a Republican state senator in District 27 before stepping down in 1998, and Mund, who is one of the school's founders, has been a paid charter-school consultant for the Department of Education since February 1999, shortly after Owens took office. She helps start charter schools and assists in the administration of the charter-school grant program; as a three-quarter-time employee, Mund earns more than $3,000 a month.

In June, 119 people -- that's everyone in the neighborhood except for three families that have kids at Jefferson Academy -- formed a nonprofit organization called Citizens for Charter School Accountability Inc., of which Rapier is president. On August 3, the group filed suit against J.A. Building Corporation, the title-holding company set up to handle the financing of the bond that was issued to build the school. They are charging the school with failing to get the necessary county permits and site approval and allege that continued construction -- a public-address system, a baseball diamond and concession stand are yet to be installed -- will increase traffic and noise.

"We've been accused of being anti-charter-school, but this is not an educational issue," Rapier says. "We're not against charter schools. It's the way the facility has been built that we have a problem with. Our tax money supports this school, and yet they seem to have the attitude of 'give us money so we can do whatever we want with no accountability.'"

At a September 13 Jefferson County Planning Commission meeting, Jefferson Academy's site-plan application was denied; the commissioners decided to let the county board of education handle it. This week Citizens for Charter School Accountability Inc. will seek an injunction to prevent further construction and to stop the use of the athletic field until an agreement is reached.

"It's very perplexing to me that people would put so much time and energy into making life difficult for the school," Arrington says. "These people built their houses thirty years ago when it was still the country, and now they want to tell us what we can do with our property. It's very unfortunate and it makes me really sad."

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