The inner workings of a multi-school reconfiguration have left one Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education member feeling like he was hung out to dry and a Wheat Ridge city councilwoman saying it was all a big misunderstanding.
The reconfiguration created a “Plan B,” which another school board member has failed to answer questions concerning her involvement into what really happened. The uncertainty has furthered the notion it might just be the latest in string of tactics by political opponents to make the Jeffco board majority look bad and add fuel to a recall debate.
“When I see elected officials and board members asking to take a look at another option, I listen. Who better represents the community?” said board member John Newkirk Friday. The board voted 5-0 on Thursday to continue with a district staff supported plan that would reorganize a group of schools in the Jefferson and Alameda areas.
At issue is a plan that will reconfigure a group of schools that are either overcrowded, in poor condition, are performing poorly, or all three. However, after Newkirk supported a group of residents and elected officials wanting to look at other options, those same officials backed out, making it look like Newkirk had a political agenda.
The reconfiguration is partly needed because Wheat Ridge 5-8 has been on turnaround or priority improvement status with the Colorado Department of Education for the five-year allowed time frame. District personnel were charged with making their own changes to the school or facing the state stepping in to do it for them.
Additionally, Sobesky Academy, a K-12 that educates hard-to-serve children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders, was busting at the seams and in need of a better facility, district officials say.
Wheat Ridge seventh and eighth graders will move to Jefferson, Stevens Elementary will move its entire K-6 student body into the current Wheat Ridge facility, and the empty Stevens building will become the new home for Sobesky.
However, on the last day of 2014, a group known as the Wheat Ridge Education Alliance (WREA) sent a letter to Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee asking the district to take a look at another option: Plan B.
The plan was devised by a handful of the group’s members over concern that the district-supported plan would close a second school in Wheat Ridge in five years and move Sobesky into one of its neighborhoods, said WREA Chairwoman Genevieve Wooden.
“I understand that a school like (Sobesky) is needed,” Wooden said. “But to close another Wheat Ridge school and then put Sobesky in a neighborhood that can’t use it, we just wanted to come up with a different plan.”
Wooden says everything was a big misunderstanding.
“There is no doubt about that,” Wooden said, supporting Newkirk’s beliefs. “I thought the idea was dead. I did not expect it to move forward. That it went this far is astounding to me.”
Plan B involved several other schools, including The Manning School, an option school for seventh and eighth graders that is both fully subscribed and one of the highest performing schools in the district.
“Plan B is supported by principals and many teachers … Wheat Ridge families and Board of Education members we spoke to,” said the letter signed by Wooden on the group’s letterhead.
But only three members actually supported it, Wooden said, adding this was the first time the group had done something like this and it was handled all wrong. She did not know why the letter claimed to have prior support from Jeffco board members.
“I can see the confusion,” Wooden said. “And I’m very concerned about how that confusion happened. Jill Fellman knew about it, but I do not believe she supported it,” Wooden said. “And I personally did not make contact with any other board members.”
However, Fellman never mentioned anything about the plan before or after the letter was forwarded to the board in January. Likewise, she never commented on Plan B until Thursday when she said she never supported it.
Fellman did not return phone calls from Complete Colorado seeking comment on her role.
When district staff killed the idea, Wooden, who is also a Wheat Ridge City Council member, said WREA community representatives Chad Harr and Guy Nahmiach told her they would make the presentation to the board at its March 5 meeting.
Wooden said that, too, turned into a misrepresentation. According to her, Harr and Nahmiach were not to represent WREA. But they did, and Newkirk felt compelled to do something, he said.
Newkirk said since Fellman wasn’t going to represent her own district, and since the letter purported to have a wide range of support, he proposed the new plan, tabling the vote until board members could gather more input.
“I believe it’s my duty to give it some consideration and give them a voice,” Newkirk said. “I made the motion to table the March 5 vote to compel discussion and community input before it went to a final vote, not to decide right then and there.”
That’s when opponents began calling it the “Newkirk Plan” and accusing Newkirk of not listening to the public.
“I’m told by the opposition on the board all the time that we need to listen to the community,” Newkirk said. “But I guess just not this community. It is double speak. We’re supposed to listen to one set of people, but not this set? “
After a community meeting and visits to some of the schools, Newkirk learned those in support of “Plan B” were backing out. He withdrew his motion at Thursday’s meeting because of the lack of support.
He added that he wouldn’t change his choices because he would never tell anyone they couldn’t speak. He also believes it is his responsibility to look at all the possibilities.
“Who am I to put my hand in their face and say no?” Newkirk said.