‘Give us more time,’ citizens say of Fraser, Grand Lake school-closing proposals | SkyHiNews.com

‘Give us more time,’ citizens say of Fraser, Grand Lake school-closing proposals

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

The dominant message delivered in the packed meeting room of the East Grand School District on Tuesday night was “save our community schools.”

“Schools are the hubs of their communities and have an importance that goes beyond education,” said Scott Ledin, of Fraser, addressing the East Grand School Board with statements he’d prepared. “They play a major role in the economic development of their communities, and they make communities more attractive to newcomers. Businesses are more likely to move to communities with schools. And families will not move to communities without schools.”

The sentiments of Fraser Valley Elementary School supporters echoed those of Grand Lake citizens just one year ago, when the possibility of closure of the Grand Lake Elementary School due to low enrollment filled that school’s gymnasium with worried parents, teachers, town officials and citizens. As it turned out, the district adopted a 2010-11 budget that made $1 million in cuts and threw a lifeline to the school, changing its schedule to five days per week to make it more competitive. The school survived for another year.

Now, with the possibility of closing the Fraser school, Fraser Valley Elementary school parents and townspeople have become highly engaged in the district’s multi-year budget crisis.

The Fraser Elementary School is joining the Grand Lake school on a list of the most feasible ways to cut another $1.1 million in 2011-12 expenditures in the East Grand School District. A leading recommendation suggests those schools consolidate in Granby. That would save the district building utilities and maintenance costs, according to a list supplied to school board members and unanimously approved by a 10-member East Grand School District Accountability budget subcommittee made up of three individuals from the Fraser Valley and seven from the Grand Lake area.

Granby Elementary would house grades preschool through third grade; East Grand Middle School would have grades fourth through seventh; and Middle Park High School would have grades eighth through 12th. The East Grand Board of Education is reserving any decision on the matter, pending more analysis of the options and more community meetings.

Fraser Elementary supporters, Grand Lake Elementary supporters, members of the budget subcommittee, and supporters of consolidation tempered emotions during the first meeting on the recommendation in the school district meeting room on Tuesday, Jan 18.

“I appreciate the recommendation the committee has put in. I think it is a very flawed recommendation,” said businessman Ron Jones, of Tabernash, and parent of children who once attended Fraser Valley. “Because what the committee has failed to look at … is the impact of not having a community school for children 5 years old to 10 years old… Would I be here if my kids would have had to ride a bus to Granby every day? Absolutely not.”

Jones advocated the district dip into some of its $2.2 million reserves to ride out the remainder of budget deliberation and allow the Fraser Valley and Grand Lake communities to “see if we can raise more money.” As much as $400,000 of those reserves are restricted by Colorado’s TABOR amendment, and by law can only be spent by “An Act of God.”

“Give us time for the community to respond and pull together a solution that does not include closing these schools,” Jones said.

“I will tell you this. To close our schools in our communities is really devastating,” said Winter Park Resort President Gary DeFrange. “The unintended consequences could be huge.”

DeFrange and others outlined how closing a neighborhood school could motivate families to move, affecting property values due to empty homes, in turn causing a “self-fulfilling prophecy” to the school district’s declining property-tax income. Closing the school, they said, could affect the vitality of many aspects of the community, such as businesses, employee retention at the resort, recreation district center programming, real estate – and the list continued.

Later in the district meeting, District Athletic Director Brendan Thurston said the “flip side” to the argument of declining property values and the loss of business due to an empty school is an occupied school that doesn’t offer a well-rounded education, with crowded classrooms and the absence of PE, art and music.

“If I’m a parent, and I see a school that’s only there to offer the basics of reading, math and science, I’m going to look at moving my kids to a school where they can get those other opportunities,” Thurston said.

DeFrange asked the board to “give us some time as a community to try and figure this thing out … I will commit to you personal time, and I will commit to you resources from the resort, to try and help to come up with those solutions.”

“We’re going to have to pay higher taxes,” said David Michel, a Tabernash parent who said that he would not want to put his Kindergartner on a bus to travel to Granby. “I’ve lived in other places in this country, and we pay very low property taxes.”

“That’s why we live here,” chirped someone from the back.

Where was the support?

In defense of the accountability committee’s consolidation recommendation, three-year committee member and parent Jim Lahrman of Winter Park reminded the crowd how major cuts to athletics, activities and high school electives were on the horizon when the 2011 committee gathered this fall to cut $1.1 million from the budget.

Rather than see those cuts happen, the committee sought a way to not only preserve athletics, activities and electives, but to enhance education with added English Language Learner support and to limit teacher lay-offs.

Absent any sustainable funding that would support schools for upcoming years, consolidating schools would do that, Lahrman said.

He pointed out that last year he, along with county commissioners and a contingency from Grand Lake, approached community leaders from throughout the county to gauge whether a sales-tax model similar to Routt County’s would be possible in Grand.

In such a model, a foundation would be created to help funnel to the schools $2 million per year generated from a 1 percent sales-tax increase, which would require a vote of the people.

But the idea fizzled, according to Lahrman, due to a lack of support.

“All we were told was ‘our business community can’t afford more taxes,'” Lahrman said. “‘We can’t afford another 1 percent up at the ski area.’… Maybe that should have been there with the onus that, ‘hey, our facilities are hanging in the balance.’ That may have been the shortfall of the DAC last year, that we didn’t put on the table what the cuts would be this year.”

At the time, deep cuts anticipated for the 2011-12 district budget were focused on more faculty, support staff and administrator lay-offs and eliminating most athletics, extra-curricular activities and electives in every school.

“Cuts have impacted the quality of education. I think it’s important to understand, that if we continue down that road, there definitely will be negative impacts to programming. If we cut electives – gym, language, technology, art, music – there won’t be a well-rounded education in this district,” Lahrman said.

“So, it’s either protect the emotion that is attached to brick and sticks,” he continued, “or, protect the student-teacher relationship that’s in the classroom. I think as a committee we chose to protect the student-teacher relationship.”

But one Fraser parent, C.A. Lane, responded, education “starts with bricks and mortar instead of a bus ride,” he said.

“I represent Hot Sulphur,” said East Grand School District Board Member Mike Thompson, during the earlier segment of the meeting. “They closed our school in 1960. We still have a great town and great citizens.”

Thompson said his son rode the bus starting in Kindergarten from Hot Sulphur Springs to Granby, and he is now a successful college student in Wyoming.

Other options?

At least one parent questioned the accountability committee’s approach to the budget. Why not consider cutting salaries? asked Rick Whitford, of Fraser.

“In a depression in this county, to say we need to give a step increase does not sit well with me at all,” he said.

The accountability committee’s report suggests a salary step increase totaling $137,296. According to the accountability budget committee, if they were to propose a 20 percent cut to salaries across the board, they would meet the budget shortfall.

Yet many believe that would be cutting at the frontline of education.

“These are the people teaching your children,” one person said.

After most of the crowd had filed out of the meeting, East Grand School Board directed staff to review the recommendations and factor in transportation and other aspects that could influence a decision.

They also directed staff and administrators to try and come up with another option not on the accountability committee list, perhaps one that combines aspects of DAC recommendations, or one that includes the possibility of a ballot question in November.


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