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The D-38 “Mess” One Senior Citizen’s Perspective by Ana Konduris

April 22, 2010

The D38 “Mess”
One Senior Citizen’s Perspective
Ana Konduris

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 (D38), like many of the 178 school districts across Colorado, suffers from a budget crisis. To balance this year’s budget and to handle next year’s anticipated reductions, D38 has taken drastic actions – detrimental actions. These actions have rocked the small Tri-Lakes community of 21,000 registered voters and 5900 students. Today, many now question D38’s capacity to handle the tough challenges ahead.

Some historical context. In 2005, when Colorado’s economy was humming, D38 had $11.1M in surplus funds. The School Board depleted that account – deliberately. As a result, the Colorado State Auditor put D38 on its “watch list” of 15 school districts with two or more financial warning indicators. According to the State Auditor, “The more indicators a school district has, the more likely it is to be experiencing financial stress. Continued financial stress could cause a school district to reduce or eliminate programs and jobs and may affect the quality of education.” Here’s the double rub. While still “on probation,” D38 continued its pattern of deficit spending in 2008-2009. Why? Because it was counting on the taxpayer to pass a mill levy override to solve its financial woes. And that explains why D38 is “O for 3” on mill levy overrides.

The latest D38 decision. On December 17, 2009, the School Board voted to reconfigure the District’s nine traditional schools. Here’s what the Board decided:
• Close Grace Best Elementary school. COMPELLING REASON: Exorbitant costs to repair.
• Move the entire Grace Best family intact (students, staff, teachers, and principal) to Creekside MS, a state-of-the-art middle school facility. COMPELLING REASON: ????
• Convert Creekside MS to an elementary school. COMPELLING REASON: To attract Jackson Creek families with elementary school kids.
• Add the 6th grade to Grace Best and the four remaining elementary schools. COMPELLING REASON: To improve elementary school utilization rates, three of five currently below 65%.
• Transition Lewis-Palmer Middle School into the only middle school to feed 7th & 8th grade students into two high schools. COMPELLING REASON: ????
Rejecting its own experts’ advice and vociferous public input to the contrary, the School Board rushed to judgment with its own pre-determined solution.

More financial mismanagement. The latest revelations regarding D38’s fiscal management have added “fuel to the fire”. In November 2009, D38 announced a budget shortfall of about $3.0M for next year. A private citizen discovered that D38 had overestimated the shortfall by $916,000. In just two days, he confirmed his finding with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) School Finance expert and immediately alerted the Board. It took D38 a full five weeks to acknowledge the extra funds and then one more week to confirm it with CDE. Why so long? And why did it take a private citizen to discover what D38 should have – nearly a million extra bucks?
Also in November 2009, the state reimbursed D38 an additional $635,000 for its unexpected increase in student enrollment. Instead of banking the extra money to help solve next year’s anticipated budget shortfall, D38 spent it – all of it. They hired additional teachers to accommodate the enrollment miscalculation. Six months later these teachers have been handed their pink slips.

Let’s review: Was the D38 budget crisis self-inflicted, manufactured, mismanaged, or all the above?

It’s just a bad decision. So why, after four months, is the public still not on board with the D38 solution? It’s all about the middle schools.

According to D38, at the root of the budget crisis were the state’s severe funding cuts and the District’s declining student enrollment, projected to be 140 students per year for the next three years. Where does the decline occur? According to D38, at the elementary levels. So:

• Why destroy 15 years of proven successful middle school education? Where else in the nation will you find one middle school that feeds into two high schools? Nowhere.
• Why close a state-of-the-art middle school to make it an elementary school? What is the cost of the conversion? How much of the facility will no longer be suitable for the new elementary population?
• Why fill the sole middle school to capacity or over capacity and risk the introduction of modulars? The new elementary school (at the Creekside location) will open in August at 60% utilization. Even with the 6th grade added to each of the remaining elementary schools, three of the four will still be under 79% utilization.
• Why overturn the “will of the people”? In 1999, by an overwhelming majority of 64 to 36%, the D38 voter approved the construction of a new middle school (later called Creekside). This construction bond has not yet been paid off.

With far too many unanswered questions, the end result is crystal clear: A single middle school, well over capacity, just like 1999.

What about the teachers? Many have lost their livelihoods. Those who remain know they’re vulnerable. Nonetheless, they will continue to work even harder on behalf of our students. We can count on them to bring up the rear. But at what cost?
Last year, D38 leadership surveyed its teachers. Many questions were asked, but the answer to one is most revealing. When asked if they feel retaliation for expressing dissent, an astounding 48% of teachers responded “yes”. At the March 18, 2010, School Board meeting, one Board member called it a “holy cow” moment. Now what?

And then there’s the kid. Remember the kid?

Looking through this senior citizen’s prism. Here’s what I expect from D38 leadership:
• Take seriously the role of “public servant”. D38 citizens, owners of the District, hold its leaders accountable for the management of public dollars, access to public information, transparency, and their individual and collective actions.
• Manage the taxpayer’s money with prudence – no waste. When times are good, set money aside for the inevitable “rainy day.” When times grow lean, hunker down. Do the tough stuff first, no bandaid fixes. Plan, plan, and plan some more. At all costs, avoid scare tactics. The sky will not fall; the earth will not open up. This, too, shall pass.
• Communicate constantly with the public. To withhold public information is wrong. To disseminate misleading, incomplete, or inaccurate information is equally wrong. Spinning and dodging are disrespectful, while arrogance is flat out insufferable.
• Remember that good manners never go out of style nor do they expire. Thank the citizen who found the extra million dollars for the D38 budget. Do it publicly or pass him a note; just say “thank you”.
• BOTTOMLINE: The price of “public trust.” PRICELESS

Ana Konduris has been a Woodmoor resident since 1988. She is the parent of a Lewis-Palmer High School graduate.

Categories: Opinions & Editorials
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