$15 million question

New Jeffco board to reconsider school construction, budget issues Thursday

The reconfigured Jefferson County school board is poised to make its first big decision Thursday, likely repudiating a move by three recalled school board members and reversing a controversial decision about how to pay for a new school.

In play is what to do with $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year and how to meet the needs of a growing neighborhood that needs a school.

Complicating matters for the state’s second largest school district: An uncertain financial forecast from the state, critical maintenance needs totaling $789 million and uneven growth patterns across the district’s 800 square miles that have some schools busting at the seams while others are losing students.

Last spring, the previous Jefferson County school board directed Jeffco Public Schools officials to use $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year to build a new elementary school for the Candelas neighborhood in northwest Arvada.

That decision ran contrary to what district staff had recommended, which was to finance the new school using a lease-to-own option known as Certificates of Participation, or COPs, and earmark the $15 million for one-time bonuses and reserves.

At the time of the decision, board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk said they had found a way to build a new school without incurring any new debt for the state’s second largest school district. The vote became campaign fodder for the recall.

“At the time, I thought that was not a very sound decision,” said Ali Lasell, who won one of the board’s open seats in November.

But she added that she isn’t sure how she’ll vote on Thursday.

“It’s weighing on my mind heavily,” she said. “Having that $15 million might be a good way to lessen the load on the COPs. I don’t think there is a way around COPs. Fifteen million dollars isn’t even enough for an elementary school.”

Northwest growth

Few are debating whether a new school is needed in northwest Arvada. But there are questions about how many students the school should serve.

Like many school districts in the Denver-metro area, Jefferson County’s student population is growing.

District officials have said for two years that a new school would be needed to meet growth demands. They’ve suggested a K-8 school all along.

“It’s a rapidly changing area,” said Steve Bell, Jeffco’s chief operating officer.

The growth is driven by a booming economy, housing market and a birthrate that is growing for the first time since the Great Recession.

While the district’s student count is up to 86,731 students, some areas are growing while others are not.

More than 9,000 Jeffco students chose to attend district charters schools this year, up from about 8,000 last year, said Tim Reed, Jeffco’s executive director of facilities.

District-run middle schools in the north are stable, while many in the central part of the district are losing students at a quicker rate. Schools in southern Jefferson County are seeing the fewest new students and losing some.

The district considered shifting attendance boundary lines in the north and central area to accommodate the student boom, Reed said, but that would mean a 30-minute bus ride each way for some middle school students.

“On a snow day they could be on the bus for an hour and a half,” Reed said.

The new Arvada campus, regardless of the grade configuration, would be the first school the district has built from scratch since the early 2000s, Reed said.

“We’re being prudent,” he said.

The $15 million question

Given campaign rhetoric, the board is mostly likely to direct the district to use the private-market financing option to construct the new school and possibly two other projects.

If that’s the case, the $15 million previously earmarked for construction could be freed up and could serve as a down payment on those loans, got entirely into reserves, or a portion could be split among the district’s staff.

At a Dec. 17 school board meeting, Jeffco superintendent Dan McMinimee suggested about $5 million be split evenly among district staff including administrators, teachers and classified employees.

Another potential option is to give every employee a 1 percent bonus. A teacher making $50,000 would earn $500; a principal making $90,000 would earn $900.

Board member Lasell said if the one-time bonuses are approved, she wants the district to negotiate with the district’s unions.

“I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for the board to make a unilateral decision when it comes to teacher pay,” she said.

Possible delay

While the board could take action as early as Thursday, it’s also likely the board could delay some decisions until later this month.

Under state law, Jeffco has until Jan. 31 to amend its current school year budget.

“I understand the staff has ideas, but I don’t think there is a rush,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, a nonprofit that championed the recalled school board members’ policy decisions.

Atwell said she hopes the new board will roll some of the discussions about school construction, teacher pay and a possible bond question into budget conversations scheduled for later this spring.

“I just hope they’d consider everyone’s opinion and have a true community conversation,” she said.

Lasell said she’d support postponing some action for more community input. But she added, “That Candelas project has to continue on track.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Tim Reed’s last name. 

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”