"This has been an incredibly difficult process for our community. There just weren't any good choices. We still have to face the hard task of dealing with our capacity issues," said Dave Thomas, school board president.
If four schools would have been closed, the district could have saved up to $4.5 million in operating expenses each year. But, the board listened to hours of comments to keep the schools open, some of them emotionally-charged.
Perhaps, the most passionate speakers came from Wheat Ridge Middle School, which was placed on the possible closure list on Saturday by the school board. The other schools had been on notice for months after recommendations were made by the district's Facilities Usage Committee.
"A criminal is allowed more time to prepare," said Lou Cruz, parent at Wheat Ridge Middle School. "Are you telling me we are less than a criminal?"
In the end, the board voted to close Russell Elementary School and combine it with Arvada Middle School to make that a K-8 program. The district plans to sell Russell Elementary, which it says has considerable real estate value. That value has not been determined.
The board voted 4-to-1 to keep open O'Connell Middle School and Wheat Ridge Middle School. The board voted unanimously to keep Pleasant View Elementary School going. The board could have closed up to four schools.
Board members apologized for putting the Wheat Ridge community into a panic.
"I do agree that putting this on the table Saturday and not giving you a chance to talk, I am sorry," said Robin Johnson, school board member.
District leaders say they can save about $1.3 million a year by closing a middle school and about half that by closing an elementary school. But, Thomas says that was still just a drop in the bucket.
"When we listened to all the anguish this would cause," said Thomas. "We're going to balance the budget another way."
Thomas suggested options include furloughs, reduced benefits, and he admits the district may have to consider teacher layoffs.
"By making this decision, we are likely going to impact other decisions," said Jane Barnes, school board member.
The board voted to sell all the temporary classrooms at Allendale Elementary and at any school sites that are at 92 percent capacity or less. Arvada West preschool will move to Fitzmorris Elementary. Swanson Preschool will move to Secrest Elementary.
All the changes including the consolidation of Russell and Arvada will save the district $1.27 million each year. It will cost up to $2.1 million in one-time capital investment costs to implement all of the options.
Laura Boggs was the only board members who voted to close two of the other schools seeking more savings.
"I'm very conflicted. They are our kids," said Boggs.
She says counting students using temporary classrooms outside, there are 20,000 empty seats in buildings around the Jefferson County School District.
"20,000 too many seats is 20,000 too many electric bills, heating bills," said Boggs.
Boggs says the struggle is far from over.
"I'm not going to stop this week. I'm not going to stop this month. I'm not going to stop this quarter," said Boggs. "We've got to fix this capacity issue."
There are still tough decisions ahead. In a release the school district sent Thursday night, it said it would be making $40 million in cuts over the next two years.
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