Parents rally to save Grand Lake Elementary from budget ax
January 14, 2010
The Grand Lake community gave an overwhelming endorsement to a five-days-a-week school schedule slated for next year.
In a survey audience members took during a Wednesday night meeting about keeping the Grand Lake Elementary School open – a school on the brink of closure due to low enrollment and a crippled district budget – parents, teachers and community members voted 52-7 in favor of operating the school with a five-day school week. Presently throughout the East Grand School District, students attend school Monday through Thursday.
“We have families out there that want five days a week,” said Superintendent Nancy Karas.
It is the hope of district administrators that the new schedule, to be available only at the Grand Lake Elementary School, might lure new students to the school to help “stabilize resources” so that the school “carries its share of the load in the district,” Karas said.
A redistribution of students – or “shuffling of the cards,” as one parent put it – may increase enrollment at Grand Lake, making that school more viable.
Karas relayed to a Grand Lake gymnasium full of community members that because of the unequal distribution of teachers and students in the district, per Grand Lake pupil, it costs the district about $10,000 to $11,000 compared to $7,100 it pays for each student at other schools.
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The district pays about $690,000 a year to run the Grand Lake school, which at full capacity would have 150 students. But enrollment at Grand Lake is 69 students.
How would it work?
The district would delay the school’s morning start time so that its students boarding busses in other parts of the district would board at the same times they do now.
Karas said she believes the later start time would eliminate out-of-area parents’ worry about having to get their children to the bus stop much earlier than they now do.
But a later start time and an earlier dismissal would mean the need for a five-day schedule to meet state requirements of 172 days of student-teacher contact time, Karas said.
District administrators estimate that running the school at a greater capacity next year would mean a $19,000 increase to the district, but that total would be offset by a redistribution of staff. Yet by implementing the new formula, there would be one teacher per grade level at Grand Lake, unlike this year’s combined first and second grades and third and fourth grades.
By increasing capacity, “The overall effect is a savings to the district,” Karas said.
But due to the severity of budget shortfalls over the next two years and possibly beyond, Karas said she could not promise the changes would keep Grand Lake open the following year.
But that should not affect parents’ decisions to send their children there, she said at Monday’s Grand Lake Town Board meeting. After all, the friends they gain in Grand Lake would move with them were the Grand Lake school to close.
Karas said the teaching staff at Grand Lake has been brainstorming ways the school could become more viable, such as restructuring it to become a kind of magnet school for arts, or perhaps sciences.
Many parents spoke passionately about the Grand Lake school, saying closing it down would not only affect students, but the entire Grand Lake community.
Retired teacher and president of the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce Barb McElroy said “the number one question people ask when wanting to relocate to Grand Lake is, ‘Is there a school there?’ I want to get the point across that this is not just about the school, this is about the viability of our community. We are talking about a huge demographic change if we close our school.”
What about all of the students from Grand Lake enrolled in Granby Elementary? asked parent Melanie Little.
The East Grand School District closed enrollment at Granby a few years ago to prevent overcrowding, but Grand Lake students were grandfathered and allow to continue to attend the school.
“However, it’s come to my attention in the past couple of weeks that we have children who fell through the cracks,” Karas said. Grand Lake students whose parents work in Granby and have Granby addresses may not yet have been flagged, she said, hinting that the district has plans to crack down on some enrollment breaches.
What puzzles Jim Peterson, a Grand Lake town board member and parent to a son who attended the elementary school, is why was the district community was asked to pass bonds in 2007 to expand other schools while Grand Lake needed the enrollment, he said.
In 2007, the county was peaking in property taxes and a construction boom.
“We were trying to be proactive to prevent overcrowding of schools,” Karas said.
The bond made capital improvements to all district schools, including an expansion of Granby and Fraser elementaries.
“If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have done it,” Karas said, adding that the upside is that buildings received improvements that will help the district weather its current economic storm.
At one point during the evening, Phillip Hovermale, a parent whose children attend the Indian Peaks Charter School of Granby, stood up and encouraged Grand Lake parents to contact the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools about alternative ways Grand Lake students could remain in Grand Lake. “I want to let you know there are options,” he said.
But after a few minutes, Grand Lake Art Teacher Darrell Woods had had enough.
“I have to interject here,” he said. “This is not a sales pitch for charters.”
“One option we don’t have is to allow this school to close,” said Grand Lake parent David Heil.
“We’re not here to talk about other schools, we’re here to talk about this school.”
Karas diverted questions about the possibility of a charter school moving in if the district were to close the school.
“That’s not where my thoughts and energy are going,” she said. “My thoughts and energies are going to: ‘How do we save it.'”
“Is there a limitation in school finances on a community raising funds for our school?” asked Grand Lake administrator Kathy Weydert.
“Because you de-Bruced, you can do that,” Karas said.
School finance tangle
A combination of the 1982 Gallagher Amendment and the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) – even with efforts such as Colorado’s 2000 Amendment 23 and the 2005 Referendum C – have caused Colorado’s school districts to remain below a 1987 funding level.
Karas presented these lessons in Colorado school finances during a Power Point presentation at the start of the meeting.
And since 1982, school mill levies have continued to drop.
But the Grand County community has been supportive, with tax increases voted in to finance drivers and to fuel the district’s bus department, with a technology mill levy, with cost-of-living increase mills, with a capital improvements mill levy in 2007, and with the ability to de-Bruce, or collect grant money without violating TABOR limitations.
In a nutshell, school financing in Colorado needs a serious fix at the legislative level, Karas said. The district’s problems are not due to mismanagement of finances, she explained.
If Grand Lake were to close, the ripple effect will be felt through the entire district, Karas said. Overcrowded classes would be added to the dismal budget-crisis list, which could include major cuts in athletics and the arts by the 2011-2012 school year.
The East Grand School District is looking toward $1.2 million cuts next year, and another $1 million cuts the following year, on top of $548,000 cut from the present-year budget.