Board closes two schools

Posted 11/18/08

Holly Cook Despite a long night of emotional pleas from parents and community members to keep the doors open, the Littleton Public Schools Board of …

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Board closes two schools

Posted

Holly Cook

Despite a long night of emotional pleas from parents and community members to keep the doors open, the Littleton Public Schools Board of Education voted to close Ames and Whitman elementary schools because of declining enrollment.

On Nov. 13, the board voted four in favor and one abstention to pass the motion. Mary Nichols abstained.

“Making the decision to close these two schools was the most difficult decision we’ve ever made as a board, and is probably the most difficult decision any board ever has to make,” said board President Bob Colwell.

The decision, while tough for the board, is being viewed by some as hasty and arbitrary, causing parents to seek legal help to save their schools.

Parents not considering a lawsuit say they are hurt and have a lot of questions.

“We’re still curious how they decided to keep the worst testing school open and not one of the best,” said Lee Freedman, who has a first-grader at Ames.

Ames, while one of the district’s best-performing elementary schools, is at 49 percent capacity. The school has been declining in enrollment for the past 23 years. Whitman is at 64 percent capacity, and has seen enrollment declines for 14 years, according to officials.

Neither Ames, located at 7300 S. Clermont Drive, Centennial, nor Whitman, located at 6557 S. Acoma St., Littleton, meets the Facility Use Task Force’s criteria for staying open.

The district’s goal is to keep building capacity at 75 percent to 100 percent, and elementary school enrollment with at least 350 students.

Board members said the decision to close Ames and Whitman was based largely on the fact that both schools have a history of declining enrollment and have been the smallest schools in the district for some time.

“Data shows that this pattern of enrollment decline is projected to continue despite achievement gains,” said district officials in a press release. “(The decline) will make it very difficult for the district to continue financially supporting these schools in the future.”

Although the district faces a $4 million budget shortfall next year, Colwell has said the closures aren’t necessarily about saving money. Assistant Superintendent Kirk Madsen said closing the schools will save the district roughly $600,000. The district would still need to pay the costs to maintain the empty structures.

"We as a district have to subsidize lower-enrollment schools to provide the quality programs we want in Littleton," Colwell said. "We have to do something, and when we look at all the alternatives, these are the ones we feel we need to look at the most."

Parents said, throughout the process board members failed to communicate their plans to the public. They also said their questions were ignored and that the board made its decision well in advance of the public hearing on Nov. 13.

“Board members were non-responsive to all of our questions,” said Jeff Cazzanigi, a parent of three at Ames. “We as parent were notified only (Nov. 7) via letters sent home without children. That gave us only four days to prepare our case.”

Freedman, who closely followed the Task Force, said he was shocked when his daughter brought home her letter.

“The task force didn’t recommend on Oct. 23 to close (Ames and Whitman Elementary),” Freedman said. “Suddenly Hopkins and Highlands were off the list without an explanation. Ames and Whitman were the only ones left.”

Like many parents, Freedman thinks the board made their decision before listening to the community’s concerns.

“In the letter we were told the school was closing and that a transition team was in place,” Freedman said. “Why would you have a transition team in place if you hadn’t already made your decision?”

Some parents even believe the board ignored the will of the community to protect their personal interest.

Colwell said at least 10 schools were considered for closure.

“Almost every one of us had a student at one point that went to one of those schools,” Colwell said in a statement. “But I have no one in school at this point. If you’re going to say we didn’t close the school where my kids went eight years ago, that’s true.”

Franklin and Peabody elementary schools will welcome Ames students next fall. Moody, Runyon, and Highland elementary schools will welcome Whitman students. This plan will put all five of the receiving elementary buildings well over capacity minimums set by the Facility Use Task Force.

Classroom ratios are expected to change from one teacher per 24 students to one teacher per roughly 29 students, according to the Task Force Final Report.

“What is best for our students has always been our primary consideration,” said Superintendent Scott Murphy. “The LPS community pulls together in challenging times, and I have every confidence that this will again be the case. We will work together to ensure a successful transition and a bright future for all students.”

Transitioning their students to new schools is the last priority for many parents. “We’re going to fight to save our school,” Freedman said.

Some alternatives parents are considering are turning Ames into a “challenge school” that would serve the district’s gifted and talented students. They also would like to see Newton Middle School turned into a K-8 school.

Assistant superintendent Madsen said other uses will be found for Whitman and Ames. Ideas that have been mentioned include preschools or adult education centers.

The district could not say if teachers would be laid off as a result of the school closures.

“We won’t know what will happen (to staff) until we get our projected vacancies report,” said Lou Ikard, spokesperson for Littleton Public Schools. “We certainly hope we have room to keep them employed once the schools close. There are a lot of pieces that go into it, but we anticipate placing people in positions for which they are qualified.”

More information regarding the Facility Use Task Force can be found online at www.littletonpublicschools.net.

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