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What happens next? 

Closing neighborhood schools is never easy. But District 11 has made a tough job even tougher

After years of what turned out to be empty threats, Colorado Springs School District 11 might not back away this time.

There's just one week, and one last major hurdle, separating the board from wrapping up its latest campaign to close underused schools and bring widespread change to the city's biggest school district.

But historically, that last hurdle hordes of hostile parents has proved the hardest to clear.

"You look at things in three or four different directions before you have a merger so big," says Marie Lopez, a D-11 parent. "Give me some answers. Give me some proof that this is what's best for my daughter."

The district's "utilization plan" is not approved, and there's still plenty of wiggle room. But the current incarnation calls for closing Adams Elementary, Buena Vista Elementary, Ivywild Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, Longfellow Elementary, Pike Elementary, Whittier Elementary and Irving Middle School after the current school year. Other 2009 changes include the Bijou School moving into the Whittier building, West Middle School taking on elementary school age kids, and Washington Elementary using the Montessori program exclusively.

In 2010, the plan calls for Wasson High School to become a small magnet school (with no boundaries) for kids interested in math and science, or art. No kids on a regular high school track would attend the school. North Middle School would become a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade International Baccalaureate magnet school. Trailblazer Elementary School would become K-through-8.

To Lopez, all this means her 9-year-old daughter, Alaura, would move out of Washington Elementary and into West Middle School. District administration is recommending that younger kids like Alaura be completely separated from middle schoolers at first, and the entire plan for K-through-8 schools is still a little up in the air. But that does nothing to appease Lopez. She's worried about her daughter being exposed to drugs and bigger, meaner bullies. Already, Alaura is picked on by older kids, who taunt the girl for having long hair. (Go figure.)

"When it comes to her, I'm not going to let anybody abuse her anymore," Lopez says. "Putting her in a giant block with a bunch of older girls? I don't see how this is going to work."

Like many others, Lopez was hoping to do more than preach to a choir of nodding parents when she attended the school board's public hearing Feb. 11 at Coronado High School. She wanted to give the board a piece of her mind. By 9 p.m., however, it became clear that her comments would have to wait. After hearing two hours of public testimony, the board told Lopez and scores of others to come back a week later if they still wanted to speak.

Disappointed, Lopez merged back into the flock of parents to strategize. But the tall hairdresser was easy to spot in the crowd; one scan revealed her thick, black curls bouncing in time with her mouth. Alaura, who didn't inherit the gift of gab, stood shyly beside her mom, sliding gently back and forth in her roller shoes.

As D-11 nears its final vote on the biggest changes the district has seen in decades, if not ever, it seems appropriate to hold the district accountable. Has it proven its case? Has it communicated well with the public? Will the district that emerges from this process be stronger, and more capable of churning out successful kids?

We'll let the grades speak for themselves. The school board can thank its lucky stars that we didn't let Lopez play teacher.

Assignment 1: Inform parents of what's coming

Grade: C+

"I'll be the first to say we didn't get the word out soon enough or thorough enough," board member Bob Null says. "But this issue has probably been publicized more than a Broncos game or [Colorado College] Tigers hockey."

He has a point. Folks, if you didn't know that D-11 had plans to close schools, you really hadn't been paying attention. Not only has the issue received plenty of press coverage for the past few years, but the district took real strides to get people involved by hosting many public meetings and posting updates online.

On the other hand, D-11 has long been the district that cried wolf regarding school closures; parents might be forgiven for not knowing it was different this time. Also this time: Meeting announcements and updates have all been tagged with "The School Utilization Study."

Now, it's no secret to anyone who's ever attended a school board meeting that D-11 leaders are fond of jargon. Typically, it doesn't matter all that much. As long as their kids are being groomed to be doctors and lawyers (not drunks or Wall Street executives), few parents really care.

But when you plan to close eight schools, you should tell parents you plan to close eight schools. Not inform them of school utilization study meetings.

Another mistake: At the Feb. 11 "public hearing," the board only allowed two hours of public input, much of which was actually used up by staff. Board member Jan Tanner says they had to deal with other business, like discussing the changes among themselves.

The board owed it to those in the crowd to hear them out. Yes, a public hearing can be long as hell, but that's the reality of a public hearing. Board members could've saved other business for later.

Assignment 2: Give good reasons for doing this now

Grade: B+

Sorry, parents, but D-11 does need to downsize. In fact, it's probably overdue.

"I've tried this three times. This is the fourth time since I've been here," says D-11 chief financial officer Glenn Gustafson. "The board has caved every time."

Chyrese Exline, a former school board candidate, says that as the drumbeat of school closures carried on, the district should have been trying harder to keep kids in D-11 schools and attract kids from other districts.

That may be true. But hindsight does nothing to mend the current problem.

D-11 is leaking children. Kids are leaving for charter schools and other districts, but they're also simply being born in other districts these days. And every child who leaves D-11 takes away more than $6,000 in state funding.

There's more bad news. Given the state's financial troubles, D-11 could actually see less money next year. Meanwhile, the state, dealing with its own budget troubles, is demanding that D-11 return $1.5 million to $2 million in previously allocated funding.

Voters also soundly defeated D-11's request for more money from taxpayers in the form of a bond issue last November.

All this, plus the 2011 sunset of K-through-12-boosting Amendment 23, prompted officials to just get on with some radical changes. By spending less on principals, secretaries, custodians and utilities, more can go to textbooks, teachers and programs. That's especially pertinent in a district with 48 percent of its kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch, because statistics show children from lower-income homes struggle more academically than their wealthier peers.

By the way, closing schools has the support of leaders of Colorado Springs Education Association the teachers' union who want to see more resources put into the classroom. Director Tim Cross notes that it's unlikely any teachers will lose their jobs, because D-11's natural attrition rate is high.

Here are some other numbers to consider, courtesy of Gustafson:

D-11 has opened 19 schools, including new buildings as well as charters (some in existing D-11 facilities), in the past 12 years. Yet, more than 4,600 fewer students attend D-11 now than 12 years ago, with another drop of at least 2,500 expected over the next dozen years.

The district projects a $4 million deficit if everything remains as is next year. It estimates it could lose $23 million in the next decade, due to declining student enrollment.

More than 85 percent of D-11's budget goes to salaries and benefits. And for those who say cuts should come from the top, consider that about $3.5 million was cut from D-11's administration budget over the past three years.

At most, 1,200 new students will enter D-11 schools when Fort Carson expands.

Only three Colorado districts offer teachers a lower starting salary than D-11.

Assignment 3: Show why you're closing certain schools

Grade: C+

When determining its hit list, D-11 took both finances and student achievement into account. One key factor was an elementary school's ability to house 300 or more kids. At 300 kids, administrators say, an elementary school can afford to offer programs like music and art.

"Those small schools operate without all those programs," says Frank Bernhard, D-11 executive director of facilities, operations and transportation. "So we're depriving kids in small schools."

Also, small schools are costly because they still need principals, secretaries, custodians and teachers (even for small classes).

So the district targeted schools that were underfilled, lacked amenities or couldn't handle at least 300 kids. That made sense financially, but created a public-relations nightmare. Almost all the schools closing are in older neighborhoods that fall on lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

Obviously, the district made an effort to show its reasoning in presentations at meetings across the city. But regardless of what information might have been provided or discussed, it has been obvious that many parents still came away not understanding why their schools were selected for closure.

Instead, parents like Marie Lopez still feel their schools were picked on because of being smaller, or perhaps because they were in less-affluent neighborhoods.

Assignment 4: Prove the new arrangement will work

Grade: C-

To date, board members haven't made their final vote on what this brave new district will look like, let alone tried to prove it will work.

Here's what D-11 has shown:

The plan will provide more money for books and teachers.

Closed schools likely won't sit empty. "Community" occupants have been found for some buildings, though the district is still looking to fill Irving, Buena Vista, Ivywild and Pike. It may try to unload the old Bijou School.

The new plan would make better sense of specialized programs like IB, allowing kids to participate from elementary to high school without having to be driven all over the city.

Here's what D-11 hasn't shown:

Parents will keep their kids in D-11 schools instead of choosing a charter or another district. On this point, Gustafson snaps, "They'll just make it worse and we'll close more schools!" Then he laments, "We're in this death spiral." True enough. It's a frustrating situation. But there's no guarantee that parents will be loyal to D-11.

K-through-8 schools are a good idea. The school board is wishy-washy about this and may choose K-through-6 schools or a traditional approach. Shirley Stevens, D-11's executive director for achievement and accountability, says the district is researching how K-through-8s work nationwide, and finding mixed reviews. She says the administration wants to spend a year reviewing the idea. By the way, D-11 once made Ivywild a K-through-8. It failed.

Programs will work in their new settings. The district has taken pains to preserve programs that increase student achievement. But Buena Vista parents, for instance, put a lot of work into the Montessori program there; losing their school means relocating the program they helped develop. Since communities often help make a program successful, it's hard to say whether these programs will thrive in different homes.

Future board members and a new superintendent will continue the plan. Simply put, there's no guarantee. An election next year could change the board and bring different ideas, though Tanner says, "I think it will be as difficult to put on the brakes as it was to get the truck moving in the first place."

Though a new board may not shelve current closure plans, it might not follow up with the difficult process of regularly reviewing schools, and purging the underused ones.

That type of regular maintenance could help future boards avoid the tougher task this board's stuck with: deciding whether to close so many schools at once.

stanley@csindy.com


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