Douglas County School Board members point to unbalanced enrollment in the district, including issues with overcrowding at some schools and underutilization of others, as the reason for denying a second site for a charter school in recent weeks.
The school board voted unanimously to deny granting Ascent Classical Academy a site in the Meridian Village, which sits between Parker and Lone Tree in unincorporated northern Douglas County, south of East Lincoln Avenue and west of South Chambers Road. This fall, the charter school is opening a location in Castle Rock with an enrollment of 500 students in grades K-12.
“When we are sitting here with 12,000 empty seats, it certainly seems kind of weird that we are going to add 750 seats tonight,” school board President David Ray said at an April 17 board meeting. “For us to be adding seats at this moment doesn’t make sense to me.”
Ascent Classical Academy models the curriculum of Golden View Classical Academy in Jefferson County. Both schools use the Barney Charter School Initiative — a project of Hillsdale College, a private, conservative Christian college that accepts no tax-supported funding — which promotes liberal arts and sciences and teaches “moral character and civic virtue,” according to its website. The Meridian location would have served up to 750 students in grades K-12.
Members of the Long Range Planning Committee, which studies growth and capacity needs in the district, emphasized the growth predicted in existing schools in the district’s east planning area, where the charter’s second location would have been located if it had been approved.
The committee voted 6-6 on whether to make a recommendation to the school board to approve the Meridian site. Six LRPC members thought the site would allow the area to serve more students, according to LRPC Chairman Brad Geiger. The other six were concerned with giving up flexibility of the site, which in the future could be used by a neighborhood school.
“Part of it is philosophical about to what extent do we want to foreclose options,” said Geiger. “Members who objected thought preserving that site for growth was more important than building another school there at this moment.”
Douglas County owns the site, which is being preserved for a school. The site will be given to the school district if it requests to transfer property rights.
Region expected to grow
Schools in the Meridian area have an 81 percent utilization rate, according to a presentation at the April 17 board meeting by an LRPC subcommittee. The LRPC is made up of two volunteers from each high school feeder area, two charter school members and two at-large members. Members are appointed by the school board and must be residents of Douglas County.
The region is expected to grow as homes continue to be built in the area.
According to Ray, 87 percent utilization of a school is the “standard” rate and 100 percent is the “ideal” rate. Anything under 65 percent is considered underutilized, according to district staff.
Ray emphasized, “Both overutilized and underutilized schools result in increased cost.”
Some planning areas in the district are experiencing a mix of overcapacity and undercapacity, according to the subcommittee.
Northridge Elementary in Highlands Ranch has 705 students, which puts it over capacity for the 582 students it was intended for — although with mobile units, which serve as additional classrooms, the school’s capacity jumps to 806. Ponderosa High School in Parker has 1,349 students, leaving it under the capacity of 2,160 students it was built for.
Northridge is at 121 percent capacity, while Ponderosa is at 67 percent.
The data shows a larger issue of inequity that the district is experiencing, the LRPC subcommittee said in its presentation.
Unbalanced enrollment across schools impacts programming — such as band, sports, advanced placement classes — the ability to hire staff, class sizes, extracurricular activities and the ability to appeal to prospective families, according to the subcommittee.
“What has happened is this,” said Geiger, “over the last two years, the LRPC has become interested and concerned that we have capacity misallocation throughout the district.”
Finances in focus
Assistant Superintendent Ted Knight predicts that as Douglas County continues to grow, the school district will need additional schools in the next decade. But, he said, the district’s current problem isn’t capacity, which varies depending on the geographical location of the county and is impacted by trends such as housing prices and demographics.
“I would not say we have a capacity issue. I would say we have a school finance issue,” said Knight. “Our biggest issue is obviously resources and making sure we get dollars for our students.”
The LRPC subcommittee recommends the school board hire an outside expert to study the district’s capacity policies. Board members did not vote on the recommendation at the April 17 meeting and asked for a request for proposal to be sent out.
In its presentation, the subcommittee touched on possible solutions to capacity issues, including redrawing the boundaries of the district’s planning areas to address open enrollment issues and transportation needs, or reallocating certain programs to help undercapacity.
During public comment, some county residents pleaded for the school board to carefully consider approving a new school.
Cindy Barnard emphasized the cost of an empty seat. She has seen a decline in programming since her children were in school. Her daughter, who graduated in 2010, was able to take an advanced placement class with just eight students, she said.
“In the Douglas County system of public schools, there must be equity and we must be able to offer all of our students access to the excellence in choices that some of our students have,” Barnard said during public comment. “Thoughtful boundary realignment and very careful consideration in opening schools only when and where they are needed will be a big step in bringing equity and excellence back to Douglas County School District.”
At the April 17 meeting, Ray reminded the audience that the question was not whether a charter school should be approved.
“The question before us is, is this the right site, is this the right place for a school?” said Ray. “Regardless of if its charter or neighborhood, that is our question tonight.”
Board members raised concerns about Ascent’s enrollment. Intents to enroll came from 181 students who are attending a charter or neighborhood school in the district and 286 students who are attending a charter or neighborhood school outside of the district. A large portion of those are homeschooled, according to representatives from Ascent.
Buildng a school at the Meridian site wouldn’t jeopardize enrollment in other schools in the area, said Ascent’s director, Derec Shuler.
“We have a very wide draw, we are a niche program. Putting us next to a neighborhood school doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to be taking kids from that area,” he said in a presentation at the April 17 meeting. “We are going to be coming in with our own kids who have already choiced in, whose families know what our unique model is and that’s what they want.”
Students come from other places
School board member Anne-Marie Lemieux, who serves on the district’s FIscal Oversight Committee, said 1,900 students in Douglas County are from out of district. And 1,600 of those students attend charter schools, which receive 100 percent of the local mill levy override.
“That means our local taxpayers are paying for kids who don’t live in Douglas County,” Lemeiux said.
She pointed out the other charter and magnet schools in close proximity to the proposed new site for the charter school. SkyView Academy, which also has a classical curriculum, is about seven miles away, west of I-25 in Highlands Ranch.
“In being a choice district, one of the things that comes up is not oversaturating. I’ve seen it happen in Highlands Ranch, where we oversatured and now charters are competing with each other to a detrimental state,” Lemeiux said. “How do we support choice without hurting choice? That’s my fear, if we put this school here, we are going to hurt our choice. We are not helping anybody.”
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