Citizens battle to save Grand Lake Elementary |

Citizens battle to save Grand Lake Elementary

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi News
Grand Lake, CO Colorado

Second graders from Grand County elementary schools canoe on Shadow Mountain Reservoir as part of the annual conservation education day on Wednesday in Grand Lake. Students learned about area wildlife, wildland fires, survival skills, the pine beetle and camping from U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado State Forest personnel. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News

GRANBY-The high school auditorium was an appropriate venue for the high drama that took place, May 17, during a five-hour-long East Grand School District board meeting – a meeting centered on the possible budget decision to close Grand Lake Elementary School.

Many of the 100-or-so people in attendance wondered how they’d missed a step. Wasn’t there just a successful community-wide effort to save the schools? Why then is Grand Lake a target again?

School board member Barbara Ahrens of Grand Lake borrowed the British term “gobsmacked” to explain how she had felt on May 9 during a Grand Lake town board meeting when School Board President Tom Sifers and East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas reintroduced to town officials the argument for closing down the school.

Ahrens said she and Grand Lake Elementary School Principal Phyllis Price hadn’t “had a clue” their colleagues would do that.

Not with strings attached

The renewed status of school closure followed a three-month effort to raise money for schools in the community. As much as $500,000 was raised to keep schools open – an unprecedented feat in Grand County, many say.

“If I were one of the outside funders, or one of the people who sat on the ad hoc committee … if I were Ron Nelson who spent all that time organizing and talking to people and pulling things together, I’d be mightily offended,” Ahrens said.

A sales tax ballot question to create long-term funding for schools has been postponed due to a struggling local economy. And with recent help from the state, the district’s 2011 budget outlook improved and community members proposed to the school board that the $500,000 be used to “buy” two years – keeping all schools open while various solutions are explored.

But the district superintendent advised the school board to not take money with that two-year stipulation. With an unpredictable future, the district needs to protect all budget options, the superintendent said.

Some Grand Lake community members blame the district for the school’s declining enrollment. The school has long been a target of closure, and with its tentative future, parents don’t enroll their children there, they say.

“The problem is a lousy economy,” Sifers told audience members. The district’s operating budget is shrinking, he said. “We’ve made a lot of efforts and tried to make the Grand Lake school work.”

Efforts included a failed attempt at extending Grand Lake’s school week to five days to attract more students.

“I think it’s the responsibility of this board, this community, this superintendent to make sure we look at all sides,” Karas said. District board members must choose, she said, between balancing the budget by closing down the school to invest in education district-wide, or spending $317,000 in reserves to support 49 students in Grand Lake.

“It’s hard to justify keeping open school buildings when we’ve let 48 (staff members) go (in the last three years),” Sifers said.

Leadership is causing the problem

“Transparency, I feel, left the building,” said citizen David Heil, a parent in Grand Lake.

“The board should not be treating this situation as a problem that should only be solved on the shoulders of one community.”

After calling out the board for perceived conflicts of interest, Winter Park parent and District Accountability Committee member Jimmy Lahrman advocated for a change in leadership during his impassioned 10-minutes at the podium.

“Don’t tell me we’re in a budget crisis and the economy is causing the problem,” he said. “It’s the leadership causing the problem.”

“Your integrity has been crushed, your trust has been lost. I’m sorry. I have absolutely no confidence in leadershp anymore,” he said to Superintendent Karas.

Lahrman accused the superintendent of instilling fear in the community. “We don’t want to keep hearing that the sky is falling,” he said. “That’s not vision! That’s not leadership!”

Riding on the energy of a standing ovation for Lahrman, Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke said: “The people of Grand Lake are getting pretty darn tired of being told (they’re) dragging the district down.”

The Grand Lake area supplies the district with 28 percent of its property taxes, the mayor reminded district officials. Although each student in Grand Lake costs the district about $11,000 – versus about $5,400 if they were to attend Granby Elementary – “We pay that five times over!” Burke said.

Books vs. Buildings

After a break, during which board member Gail Delphia got visibly emotional and left the building, Lahrman grilled board members for their philosophies on spending district reserves.

While most board members expressed caution yet willingness to spend at least some reserves, Karas said she would recommend spending reserves depending on “how much we spend, dictated by what we spend it on.”

The current budget scenario, she said, rests on major cuts that cannot be sustained.

The district may be facing an estimated $145,000 shortfall in 2011-12 – if Grand County’s $170,000 forest reserves donation is included in budget calculations.

Toward the end of the meeting, Heil expressed frustration that the board was considering closing down a school for a mere $145,000 budget shortfall, compared to a $1 million estimated shortfall district officials thought they faced in January.

One Grand Lake teacher, Jan Games, said it would be easier to return programs and materials to the school district than it would be to reopen a school after closing it.

Meanwhile, another Grand Lake teacher Kari Simmons pleaded for the board to make its decision soon so she would have time to prepare her students for next year.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” Simmons said. “But when we’re in hard economic times, it’s hard for everybody. We have to look beyond the building. If (students) have to move to another building, we’re still going to teach,” she said. “We became educators because we love the kids.”

Board members postponed making a decision on the school closure until a special meeting set for May 23.

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext.19603.