Dwindling dollars, student numbers spur school closure

June Creek Elementary School students will go to Avon, Edwards elementary schools

June Creek Elementary School will close and be turned into an early childhood education center, amid shrinking student enrollment and budget contraints. June Creek students will go to Avon and Edwards elementary schools.
Daily file photo

The school board closed June Creek Elementary School and will send those students to Edwards Elementary School and Avon Elementary School, a consolidation that school board members said should have been done two or three years ago.

Following Wednesday’s split decision, 5-2, the June Creek building will be converted into an early childhood education center and school district office space.

Parents, faculty and students protested the decision, but School Board President Katie Cocchiarella said the decision should already have been made.

“I hope this conveys to the community that this is not a rushed decision. It’s something we have been considering for some time,” Cocchiarella said. “The budget implications are so bad that this needs to happen as well as other cuts.”

In the eastern end of the county, elementary school student enrollment numbers have dropped 30% since 2013. Schools are also facing state funding cuts of 10% or more in the wake of the COVID-19-caused economic crunch, Superintendent Phil Qualman said.

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Passionate public input

More than 170 people joined last week’s online special school board meeting, and another 158 joined Wednesday night.

The only compassionate decision is to let these students return for another year to their school that has become a second home, parents said.

Consolidating now, especially after the building was closed early this year, is too abrupt and stressful, and could create learning problems and psychological issues.

In response, postponing consolidation for a year is not prudent, Qualman said. The district has discussed options for years.

The timeline is aggressive, but is imposed on the district by a situation beyond their control, Qualman said.

The district is also demanding 10% in budget “survival cuts” in every department, Qualman said.

All three schools are under 300 students and two are under 200.

“Doing nothing is the irresponsible move. We know what’s coming and we have a responsibility to act on what’s coming,” Qualman said.

Larger schools have been subsidizing the district’s smaller schools, giving up some staffing to the smaller schools. That amounts to more than $1 million a year, Qualman said.

Avon Elementary Principal Dana Harrison said many June Creek students were originally scheduled to attend her school, and she welcomed them back into the Avon Elementary family.

“Closing a school is a heartbreaking decision, but resources are thin and times are tough. This will help make those resources go further,” Edwards Elementary Principal Matthew Abramowitz said.

Edwards Elementary will enthusiastically welcome new students, Abramowitz said.

While the emotions are tough, logistics are not. The three schools are within a 10-minute drive of each other, which makes no significant difference to students who ride a bus, Qualman said.

Class sizes will also remain about the same, up to 23 students for first-through-third graders, and 25 students in fourth and fifth grades. Classes at Avon and Edwards should stay at those levels.

June Creek is home to a large at-risk student population, defined as special ed, English language learners and students eligible for free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs. Those services would follow June Creek students to their new schools, Qualman said.

No planned job cuts

For now, the proposal would mean no one loses their jobs. While the district has been in a hiring freeze since COVID-19 roared through, the district has unfilled positions. The district usually sees a 17% annual turnover rate among teachers, Qualman said.

School Board Member Kelly Alter has been through this. Her students were in Red Sandstone Elementary School in Vail when it was on the chopping block in 2011.

“I recognize what a trying time this is for everyone,” Alter said.

Alter said the board has a responsibility to be fiscally responsible for the entire district, adding that she has heard from other communities that support the decision.

Cocchiarella switched seamlessly back and forth between Spanish and English as she addressed the bilingual group. She said as school board president her responsibility is the best education for the district’s 6,600 students.

Board Member Shelly Jarnot said she sent her three children to bilingual schools in Edwards.

“Tough times are here and tougher times may be coming,” Jarnot said. “The school board kicked this can down the road and cannot do that any longer.”

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