Honor Rolled

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.

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.

Although enrollment at Majestic Heights has fallen from 163 students in 1995 to 102 today, and at Martin Park it has dropped from 496 students in 1995 to 137, school-district figures also show that attendance at Aurora 7 is the highest it's been in five years, rising from 293 students in 1995 to 338 this year. Part of that boost comes from students who are bused in from Superior; still, 75 percent of the students live in the Aurora 7 neighborhood.

Closing Majestic Heights also means that students will have to cross busy Table Mesa Drive to get to Martin Park, a fact that has forced the city to consider building an underpass, which could cost more than $1 million, according to Mock. "The school board didn't come to the city at all," Mock says, adding that his letter was answered with "no more than a polite thank-you from Stan Garnett.

"The school board did a terrible job of public process two years ago, and they've done a terrible job again. My experience is that if you give people enough time to look at problems, they'll come up with some pretty imaginative solutions. School-board members can't continue to go into issues like this thinking they're the experts. That attitude just doesn't work in Boulder."

Many parents couldn't agree more. Majestic Heights parent Sherwood is leading a drive to unseat the entire school board, except Okolowicz. She and more than one hundred other angry parents are trying to collect the 16,000 signatures needed to trigger a special recall election, which could be held in early June.

Right now they can only try to oust three -- Garnett, Phillips and Jean Bonelli -- because boardmembers have to be in office at least six months before they can be recalled, but they'll begin circulating recall petitions for the others -- Angelika Schroeder, Teresa Steele-Sackschewsky and Bill de la Cruz -- in May, after the grace period expires.

Other parents, like Majestic Heights's Donna Schaefer, were so angered by the decision that they are enrolling their kids in schools across town to make a statement to the school board. Even though most of Boulder's growth is concentrated in the north end of town, where finding a small school will be difficult, Schaefer felt she needed to move.

"It was a pure emotional reaction to being told what to do," she says. "The school board expected 300 to 400 parents to obediently march over and enroll their kids in Martin Park, but they've only gotten about 120 parents to do that. That should tell them something. It says the parents are pissed. I don't know where everyone is going, but several parents I know have enrolled their kids in other Boulder schools."

BVSD spokeswoman Barbara Taylor couldn't confirm that number; she says the district doesn't know how many students have enrolled in Martin Park, because it hasn't finished making placement assignments for next school year.

Some school-district employees and many parents believe that part of the reason for consolidation is that the board felt obligated to do something for Southern Hills Middle School, which has been sharing its campus with Summit, a popular charter middle school, for four years. The staff and parents at both schools have put a lot of pressure on the board to find Summit a home of its own, and on February 24, less than a month after approving the consolidation plan, the board voted to move students from Summit to Majestic Heights. Garnett insists that the two issues are entirely separate, however. "To suggest that there was some secret plan is completely incorrect and unrealistic," he says. "The space problem at Southern Hills is a big problem, though. Kids at both schools have a hard time accessing the gym and library because of having to share space. There are portables everywhere."

Julie Phillips, the boardmember who proposed the moratorium, says the choice to close the schools wasn't an easy one to make, but that it had to be done.

"What propelled us into the South Boulder consolidation was when our staff determined that they were expecting only 88 students to enroll in the Majestic Heights neighborhood school next year. We just couldn't justify putting so many resources into such a small school," she says, adding that she thought the $10.6 million referendum that voters passed in 1998 would be enough to prevent the district from having to close schools until 2001 -- or at least until the district gets more money from the state.

In November, she hopes voters will approve a ballot initiative she's been working on that would mandate inflationary increases in state funding for education plus an additional percentage point every year for ten years. The initiative would create a state education fund that would either draw money from the state's annual budget surplus, increase the state sales tax by half a cent or restore a quarter-percent state income tax. If it makes it onto the ballot, the plan could generate up to $350 million more each year for Colorado schools.

"When we have a budget crisis, we have no cushion, no reserve," she says. "We're like a family living on the edge, spending everything we have and not saving anything, and then the unexpected happens, like someone in the family loses their job. I hope my initiative passes in the fall so that we never have to do this again."

Even Garnett admits that some "mistakes were made in the process" of choosing to consolidate schools, but he stands behind the board's decision.

"A lot of meetings were held at the schools affected by the consolidation, and I heard concerns that district staff didn't make the public feel their input was welcome," he says. "But boardmembers answered hundreds of e-mails and phone calls; we did hear parents' concerns. People involved in consolidation in other districts will tell you unequivocally that there is no good process. If we took too long to make a decision, we'd get criticized for dragging out the public's agony. But since we made a decision quickly, we got criticized for doing it too fast.

"I don't mind people disagreeing with the board's decision," Garnett adds, "but it does get under my skin when people say we don't have our facts straight or that we haven't thought this through. There is nothing more painful than closing schools and watching the disruption it creates and having to constantly explain what we're trying to accomplish."

At Majestic Heights, where teachers and students in the neighborhood portion of the school have been working happily alongside those in the Boulder Community School of Integrated Studies since the focus program moved in more than two years ago, the consolidation carries a lot of emotion.

"We are two schools but one community," says principal Betsey Krill.

"I don't think any of us want to think about the last day of school," adds special-education instructor Donna Ewing. "We really are a family here."

Three years ago, when space constraints forced Ewing to relocate from her original classroom to one half its size, Krill gave Ewing several cans of paint so that she could make her new room feel like home. Kids dipped their hands in the paint and left their imprints, in the form of words spelled out in sign language, on the walls.

"I promised myself that when I move out of here at the end of the year I'd cut a piece out of the drywall and take it with me," Ewing says, fighting back tears. "I need a piece of this place after ten years."

Gabby Templet contributed to this report.


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