In August, the Jefferson County school superintendent recommended closing my kid’s school. It wasn’t a huge surprise, she hadn’t made much of a secret about her desire to close our little K-8 nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halfway between Boulder and Golden.
It’s not that it’s a failing school – in fact it’s one of the highest performing schools in the district. Or that the kids aren’t happy – it’s the kind of vibrant community you can only find in a place where people have made a conscious decision to live in an out-of-the-way place.
No, the problem is that, like the 16 elementary schools the district closed in last year, it’s a little too expensive.
As Americans have fewer children and the cost of raising them becomes ever more expensive, school districts are facing declining enrollment with a choice: Create either a cheaper administrative office or cheaper students. Here in Colorado, where investment in schools is chronically low, many are opting for cheaper students.
We live in an era when school districts feel the pressure to behave more like corporations than government institutions. This attitude is killing our schools and robbing our children.
In many ways, our tiny little school which ranged between 80 and 160 kids, their homes scattered across three counties, is a perfect microcosm of this dynamic. It’s the rare kind of place with people from across the social and political spectrum living together. In Coal Creek, you might see a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on a house next to one with a Pride flag. But we all have some things in common. We love watching the aspens turn yellow in the fall, the first snow, opening day at Eldora ski mountain, and the spring thaw. We love the flowers, pines, and moose who won’t leave our gardens alone. We love climbing, fishing, paddling, hunting, trail-running, riding ATVs, and walking our dogs in four feet of snow.
And we love our school. It’s the one thing that keeps this delightful mess of a community together. And it shows – according to national standardized testing scores last year, the school is among the top five in the district for both individual improvement of students and overall performance. But it costs about $200,000 per year more than the district gets to run it.
It was clear in 2018 that the district had decided to close us. That’s when an expected capital investment from a bond measure – a little under $1 million – was blocked and then later diverted elsewhere. Then Jefferson County started moving popular teachers away, often mid-year, and combining classes. We’ve had three principals in two years. One teacher was pulled from his class after the first month of his first year with no notice. Try explaining supply-side economics to a bawling 6-year-old who just wants his teacher back.
Naturally, disgusted parents started pulling their kids from the school for fear it would close, until only 80 or so remained. More than half of the kids living in our canyon are now either home-schooled or driving to adjacent districts.
Then, last school year the district announced that the falling enrollment that it had helped cause was reason enough to shut down the school. The school, despite high test scores, was not “thriving.” When asked whether academic performance was a part of this consideration, Lisa Relou, a spokesman for the district, said, “It just hasn’t been … it wasn’t a factor that we considered.” The primary factor she cited was the yearly $200,000 shortfall.
But in fact, the real problem is the philosophy that running a school is anything like running a business, where cutting costs is as good as increasing productivity. That doesn’t translate to better students, just cheaper ones.
And few states make cheaper students than Colorado, whose investment per child is just above Arkansas and just below Missouri. In other words, we are making Nissans while California and New York are making BMWs. But unlike car buyers, the customer base for Colorado public education is shrinking, and it doesn’t want to be paying for cheap students.
Case in point: Jefferson County has grown 10% since 2010, but its population of children has dropped almost 8%. Test scores are down and by most measures, the schools are performing poorly. The superintendent, who came from another failing district, makes $260,000 per year, or six times the median income of her district and four times that of the average teacher. Her office has an annual budget of $30,000 for office supplies.
☀ MORE IN OPINION
Meanwhile, nearby better-ranked districts like Douglas County and Boulder have either grown or resisted the statewide decline in customers. Rather than go to schools in Jefferson County, parents either move, opt out, or never choose to live there in the first place. Given the shortfall and mismanagement, it’s hard to see how Jefferson County will avoid a state takeover in the near future.
But there is a wider lesson to be taken from our tiny little school and its failing district. Running a school is nothing like running a business. That creates market pressures to generate cheaper students, which weakens the schools and weakens our country.
A better model is to treat schools like tech start-ups. Invest in the ones that are succeeding and grow those models rather than looking for the ones most adept at cutting corners. That’s the attitude we have seen from the half-dozen charter schools scrambling to meet JeffCo Schools’ deadline to make a pitch to take over our little schoolhouse.
The district gave us just two months to find a charter school willing to step in so that our kindergarteners won’t have to spend two hours a day on a bus. I hope it’s enough to save our little mountain schools. And I certainly hope the district finds good use for the money it will save.
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