Grand Lake parents have struggled with school issue for years
Grand Lake, CO Colorado
“Did you see this?,” Christina Heil of Grand Lake asks as she sets down The Denver Post on the table.
Splashed on Wednesday’s front page was the headline, “Schools bear brunt of Hick’s new cuts.” As much as $332 million is poised to be cut from the state’s K-12 education budget.
For Heil, the news is just another hurdle to overcome in her quest to ensure her four children, from grades second through seventh, have the school experience she and her husband envision for them.
The threat of closure of the Grand Lake Elementary School prompted her to become involved two years ago. She joined the District Accountability Committee on the mitigation and fundraising committee. She went to meetings, she researched and she asked questions.
“It took me from January of ’09 to July of ’09 to understand school finance, and I still don’t understand it all,” she said.
Eventually, Heil recruited another mother.
“By July, Christina got me involved,” said 15-year Grand Lake resident Lisa Simpson over coffee at the Blue Water Bakery on Wednesday. “If she was there, I was there, or if I wasn’t there, she was there. And so we literally covered everything. DAC, boardroom, work sessions, everything.”
Heil is the president of Grand Lake’s Parent Advisory Committee, now PTA, and serves as the Parent Advisory Committee secretary at the middle school.
She and Simpson also have become active in the non-partisan Great Education Colorado organization based in Denver, an arm of Great Futures Colorado.
When the anti-tax measure Amendment 61 was to be on the November 2010 ballot, which could have crippled the East Grand School District Education budget, Simpson and Heil wrote by hand hundreds of postcards opposing it.
Asked how many school-related meetings they have attended in just the past year: “About 70,” they said.
“In those first round of cuts, I didn’t know what was coming on the horizon,” Heil said about her role on the DAC. But she remembers the warning: “Year two is going to be just as bad.”
Heil and Simpson shared a role on the 2010 DAC budget subcommittee, which had the consensus to recommend closing Fraser and Grand Lake schools.
Both mothers grapple with that decision, which they recognized as being the best alternative for the entire district in the DAC’s charge to put students first.
“But if you ask me personally if I ever wanted to close the school, I would absolutely say no, because it affects me personally on a business level and a personal level,” said Simpson, a real-estate broker. It took her about three months, she said, “to even consider there was a bigger picture – the district – not just Grand Lake.
“After you get more information and education about the situation, you start to become a district supporter more than just a town supporter,” she said.
For the Fraser community, which recently found out its school was in jeopardy, Simpson said she can relate to the waves of reaction. She has been attending Monday night group meetings in that community to share information.
“They started out in a natural place, focused on their town and their school,” she said. “And now, they’ve started to open up and are starting to see the benefits on getting all the communities together and leveraging our resources and our power.”
Both women support putting an additional 1 percent sales tax on the ballot in the near future, to not only save the Grand Lake school, but to improve education district-wide.
“The big picture is the sales tax is only going to benefit you in the long run,” Heil said, who pointed to the newspaper, calling the state’s budget cuts a “game-changer” in the need to move forward with improving education in Grand County.
“It’s taking (the district) out from under the state, but also providing an investment in your county that’s going to attract people,” Heil said.
“If you’re looking at the numbers, it’s tough, because it does cost $10,000 to educate a child in Grand Lake versus Fraser or in Granby,” Simpson said. “However, that being said, what is a town about? The premise of a town is to support its citizens and raise its children, hopefully, to be good citizens. If they’re connected to Grand Lake, they will make Grand Lake a better place in (future) years. Even if they move away, they move back.”
The women are awaiting any cue from the district board about ways to launch fundraising efforts to meet the town of Grand Lake’s challenge match of $20,000, approved on Feb. 14.
The district board will soon deliberate about whether to accept offers of community funding to keep schools open, buying time for voters to decide on a possible sales-tax question in November.
“We’re awaiting a decision and the marching orders of the district,” Heil said. “It will give us all direction and a common purpose to move forward.”
Meanwhile, a district policy on fundraising poses a challenge. The policy, Simpson explained, is in place to protect children. “We don’t want Joe Merchandiser to go out and sell widgets in the name of ‘Johnny student’ and profit from it, take the money. However, it needs to be altered a little bit. It’s becoming a roadblock to moving forward and saving our schools.”
To circumvent the policy, the Grand Lake Elementary School Parent Advisory Committee has changed its identity to the Grand Lake Community PTA, a nonprofit 501 (c)3 that could become the vessel needed to transfer private and public funds to the school district. “We have people ready to donate money,” Simpson said. Yet PTA members must be careful about how they word their message, saying “Please support our local community PTA,” instead of “save our schools,” Simpson said.
The way Heil sees it, the problem stems from outside the realm of education in Colorado.
“It’s truly the tax structure within Colorado. When you have increased need for services, more residents and students, the tax structure hasn’t accommodated that increased need. So Coloradans want to have all these great public services, but they’re not willing to vote to fund those services. So you need to vote, or you need to cut those services. And now we’re at such a crossroads.”
Simpson also sees the problem of all the un-funded mandates from the state, such as requiring a certain amount of P.E. without funding salaries for P.E. teachers.
“If things aren’t going to change at the state level, then something else has to step in,” Heil said.
Eventually, both Heil’s and Simpson’s children will be going to school in Granby, “so I’m as much focused on the middle school and high school as I am Grand Lake,” Simpson said.
“We all understand the community schools are important. If we all join the big cause, your community is not only going to get your school, but an enhanced education at all schools. The entire district is going to be better off.”
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