24 February 2010: What’s at stake in the Clear Creek schools

What’s at stake in the Clear Creek Schools?

Commissioner Kevin O’Malley’s comment that the county is weathering the financial storm struck me given both the county and the Clear Creek School District depend upon the same property taxes. Ironically, the saving grace for the county is not one for our schools.

CCSD faces cuts beyond the bone to the marrow. I know that because as a Board of Education member I voted to make those to-the-bone cuts in 2009, including moving the middle school program to the Floyd Hill campus, which has saved the District $200,000.

In the name of equity, the state is now compelling CCSD to cut its budget by at least another $555,000, even though it won’t save the state one penny. If I were explaining that to a class of juniors, one would likely say, “That sucks,” to which I would reply, “Yes, it does, but it gets worse.”

The Clear Creek community reflects the rest of the nation in one glaring way: divided. The county’s topography initiated and contributes to the division, but over time other forces have exacerbated it.

The term du jour for vested interests groups, “stakeholders,” is apt in this case as it is stakeholders who are driving stakes into the heart of the schools. On the east side are threateners holding the District hostage with their “Either my way or I’ll send my kids to Jefferson County” attitude; on the west are wounded ones considering another charter school at the middle level because at one time they faced the potential of their under-performing elementary school being closed. Between are groups more concerned about personal fiefdoms—e.g., football field—than what is best for the whole.

In short, it is about adults acting in ways they ostensibly are raising their children not to act.

The budgetary process is complex and the general fund, 80 percent of which is dedicated to salaries, is the target. Superintendent Dr. Bill Patterson says every effort will be made “to avoid program cuts while looking at less costly ways to provide services to students.”

Another concept to keep in mind is divestiture of property does not translate into increased revenue in the general fund. For example, if the District unloaded the football field, which occupies prime real estate and is used almost never, the money would go into the capital portion of the budget. Nevertheless, it could help retire debt.

There is no doubt, as one community leader argues, that the relocation of the high school atop Floyd Hill gives lie to the maxim, “build it and they will come.” And I am convinced that some Floyd Hill residents prefer the wastewater treatment plant staying in the hands of CCSD given the prohibition by the state for it to sell taps.

Yes, there is more, but is it hopeless? The irony: the school district is the only entity that can unite the community given it is concerned with one thing only: kids, human capital—our country’s future. As one offered, “Some days I feel we’ve dug a hole for ourselves, but on others, I’m more optimistic.”

To climb from that hole, the CCSD is facing a mountainous crisis, but with it comes a rare opportunity to remake itself. We have key assets in place. Among them is the revolving door at the superintendent’s office has stopped spinning with a committed, competent leader who is able to fathom the many pieces of the puzzle. Another is the High/Middle School complex that contains the capability for 21st-century education and innovation.

There is a silver lining behind the storm clouds.

BOE member Laurie Beckel suggests assessing the long view before making specific decisions.

“We need first to decide on the right conversation for a school board to be having during times of fiscal crisis and long-term uncertainty,” says Beckel. It should be a “high level discussion on impacting issues that concern children and families across the District, not just one school.”

Beckel offers five questions as starters:
• What focus areas are sustainable?
• Where do strategic directions need to be compromised?
• How is creative problem-solving encouraged and implemented?
• What are the education essentials that must be maintained?
• How do we determine what the community will pay for if the state won’t?

The larger two-part question in a nutshell: Where will CCSD be in 20 or 30 years, and with that in mind, what needs to be done now?

Three meetings for all stakeholders are scheduled to allow community input: March 1 @ 6:30 at the high school; March 4 @ 6:15 at the administration building in Idaho Springs; March 10 @ 6:15 at the high school.

A district email address is being set up for community members to make suggestions and ask questions. Areas for reduction that have been suggested will be posted on the CCSD website prior to the community meetings. Dr. Patterson wants to assure everyone that no decisions will be made by the BOE until after the community meetings have been held.

My one suggestion for attendees: Leave your stake at the door.

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