District 11 board still pointing toward final vote Feb. 25; informal OK of Pike closure

       Still planning to make a final decision Feb. 25, the District 11 Board of Education worked on the school reutilization issue for 5 1/2 hours Feb. 18 and plans to convene again in a work session Monday, Feb. 23 at the Tesla Center, 2560 International Circle, starting at 6 p.m.
       The meeting will be televised on cable channel 16, but will not include a public hearing, Board President Tami Hasling said. The idea is to hammer out positions that staff can turn into recommendations for a board vote Feb. 25, she said. That meeting, also at Tesla, will start at 5:30 p.m.
       The board ostensibly finished with the Westside schools Feb. 18 - including straw-poll acceptance of staff recommendations to close Pike Elementary - but based on member comments, they intend to “revisit” at least one issue, specifically the West preschool through eighth grade (K-8) plan they had informally OK'd during late- night discussion at the Feb. 11 meeting.
       This change of thinking appeared to be influenced by comments at the two public hearings (Feb. 11 and 18), where several people - unconvinced about the effectivness and/or worried about bullying from older kids - criticized the K-8 idea at West and suggested a K-5 or K-6 instead. (Where current West middle- schoolers would go in such a scenario has not yet been addressed.)
       Staff recommendations have called for four K-8 schools around the district. Staff members have assured the board the format can work when the school has a “specific focus,” as Deputy Superintendent Mike Poore phrased it. West, for instance, is proposed to become a magnet for gifted middle school students through the district's SAIL program.
       But board members were leery of moving forward on so many K-8s at one time. The only one they seemed to favor Feb. 18 was at Trailblazer... and even that was just to explore the idea in the coming year. The purpose for going to K-8 at Trailblazer would be to stem the tide of students going to District 20's Eagleview Middle School after fifth grade, instead of to District 11's Holmes Middle School, which is actually farther away.
       The Pike plan is similar to the one that D-11 staff proposed to the board a year ago, but which was dropped at that time because board members felt they needed a broader study. The plan would transport Pike's current students to Jackson (about two-thirds of them) and to Bristol (one-third), starting with the coming school year. Although Pike was honored this year as the state's top-performing low-income school, district officials say it's too expensive to keep it open because of its small size, and that a somewhat larger school can offer a richer and broader educational experience.
       Jackson would need a four-schoolroom addition to handle the Pike kids. It could be ready by January 2010, D-11 staff told the board, at an estimated cost of $1.2 million
       The Feb. 18 public hearing included comments from County Commissioner Sallie Clark and Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO) President Dave Munger. Both argued that the district's reutilization effort had not involved citizens enough, asked that the vote be delayed and offered to help with a lengthened public process.
       The board members' straw poll on Pike was close, with Hasling joining board members, Bob Null and Charles Bobbitt - who have been cautious about most of the recommendations so far - while John Gudvangen, Sandra Mann, Janet Tanner and Tom Strand were all right with it. Hasling said she was bothered by the idea that closing one school would just mean adding onto another.
       In all, the board is having to consider more than 60 reutilization proposals by district staff. These include 14 questions regarding southeast and northeast school changes that the board still has not gotten to.
       For the Westside, the board has supported nearly all its staff recommendations. The most complex of these would involve closing Buena Vista, Washington and Whittier elementaries and creating a new boundary in which all those students (except about 15 percent of the current 177 at Whittier and the 160 in BV's Montessori) would be in the attendance area for a new elementary at West. As noted above, the middle school aspect of West (and how that relates to Holmes Middle School) is still up in the air.
       The Montessori would move to Washington and become a district-wide magnet program. This move has been opposed by some Buena Vista parents and staff - saying that this year's “dual-track” (classes in either Montessori or traditional style) has worked well and that some neighborhood students might be lost in the move. However, district staff believe the Washington site is ideal, and have noted that it's close to BV (about half a mile away) and recently renovated with geothermal air- conditioning; also, that the relatively small building (capacity about 250) would work well for the still-growing Montessori program. Still, some BV parents have asked for a multiyear district commitment to ensure that the program - the only public-school Montessori in the region - will not be quickly shut down on the basis that its enrollment is too small.
       In other Westside considerations, the board majority backed staff proposals to rebuild West and put additions at Jackson, Howbert and Bristol elementaries. The staff thinking is that each of these schools will be receiving students from closed schools, and one of the reutilization goals is to make the remaining Westside schools bigger, with two to three classes at each grade level - thus allowing more teacher collaboration and greater educational opportunities in general.
       The West rebuild is still conceptual. There has been some district sentiment toward a new building, as a kind of payback to the Westside being hit so hard by the reutilization impacts. One board member, Charles Bobbitt, has even suggested a new building, as the district's highest construction priority. However, in an interview after the Feb. 11 meeting, Bernhard said the cost of building new would be much higher ($16 million) than doing an “interior reconfiguration” ($5 million) of what's there now. Although one of the buildings dates back to 1924, there are no major structural issues, and the staff plan would be to “essentially retain the historic look on the outside,” Bernhard said.
       Inside, there are some features worth keeping, such as the stairs, stair rails and old moldings; but the lack of cooling is an issue, and the building could use window replacements, modern fixtures and renovated restrooms, he said.
       The suggested rebuild would be over and beyond an estimated $400,000 that Bernhard has budgeted between now and August to retrofit West into essentially two schools - a preschool and K-5 elementary and its current 6-8 middle school. The idea would be to ensure that the students from the different schools do not interact except under controlled circumstances.
       The only nixed staff proposal Feb. 11 was to begin a study for a future rebuild of Midland Elementary. The staff opinion is that the campus is large enough to handle a larger school, and more size will be needed to accommodate growth from Gold Hill Mesa, which is in its attendance area and slated eventually for 1,000 homes; as well as from students that are to be bussed in from the present Ivywild Elementary attendance area. The reutilization plan calls for Ivywild to be closed, and about 85 percent of its current 170 students to be assigned to Midland, starting next fall. However, a year after that, under the staff recommendations, Midland would lose its IB program to the new North K-8 school. As a result, board members were skeptical of an imminent need for a new, bigger Midland School.
       Board member John Gudvangen expressed an skeptical view, in general, to additions on the Westside at this time. “We as a district say we have lots of extra space, and yet it feels awkward to me to say we apparently can't utilize the space we have well enough, so that we need to do some building in a part of the district where we already have space.”

Westside Pioneer article