Facing Cuts, District Mulls Closing School in Crawford; Parents Fighting to Keep it Open

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CRAWFORD, Colo. (KKCO) - Facing $2.3 million in cuts, Delta County School District 50J says consolidating or even closing a school in Crawford is a very real possibility. Now the small town is banding together, urging district leaders to make cuts elsewhere.

"Our kids excel at this school," said Stephanie Neff, the parent of a Crawford School student. "They love this school and the community backs this school."

Multiple plaques recognizing Crawford School as a top performer on CSAP tests line its hallways. This year, it was named a Colorado School of Distinction. So when parents learned it could be on the chopping block --

"I was completely shocked," said parent Tanya Crawford.

After state budget cuts forced them to reduce spending by five percent this school year, Delta County School District 50J finds itself having to slash another five percent for next school year.

Though they're considering several options -- cutting teaching positions, offering early retirement incentives to current staff, and charging transportation fees -- officials say when you look at the costs of operating a school that only has about 100 students, that can't be overlooked.

"Smaller schools are inherently more expensive to operate on a per pupil basis than a larger school," said John Jones, spokesperson for District 50J Schools. "That's because you have to run the facilities, have teachers and administrators and secretarial staff whether there's 100 students or 300 students in the building. So that's where we're looking at this."

The district's budget task force is examining four different scenarios for the school. Three involve moving different combinations of 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to schools in Hotchkiss.

"It saves the district money because those teachers can be relocated in the district and those teaching positions, at least two of them, can be closed," said Jones. "We also have existing bus service to Hotchkiss because that's where the Crawford high school students go."

The fourth scenario would result in the complete closure of Crawford School, meaning all students would be bussed to Hotchkiss.

"When you talk about the closure of a school, it's an emotional issue," said Jones. "There's no attempt to single out Crawford. The issue, again, is seven years ago there were 153 students. Now there are only about 100."

But singled out is exactly how parents feel.

"This is a district wide problem and I don't understand why all of it is being laid at Crawford's door," said parent Roberta Odle. "There are much better alternatives on the task force's agenda to address [the budget] issue that would be fairer for everyone involved."

They argue their property taxes more than pay for the school's operating costs. And apart from the long bus rides their kids would have to take to and from their new schools --

"It would make an eight hour day into a ten hour day for kindergartners, first graders, second graders," said Crawford. "And they cannot handle that."

-- they say living in a community with no school could hurt property values and future business growth.

"I'm hoping this whole economic downturn is temporary," said parent Amy Peebles. "But closing a school is not temporary. That's forever."

Parents say as the discussions continue, they don't want to be antagonistic.

"We don't feel like it's us against them," said parent Sondra Guy. "We want to be a team, trying to work through this together."

And while they understand the position the district is in --

"I feel empathy for the people who have to make those decisions because they're very difficult decisions," said parent Tracy Cheatham.

-- they hope the district understands the position they'd be in.

"The long term effects of this are catastrophic for our community," said Odle.

This week about 150 parents attended a meeting the budget task force held at Crawford School. They say they hope that sends a strong message to district leaders as they move forward with cuts. But come May if the school is closed, the parents say they would begin looking into their own alternatives.

"It's very likely that we would start a charter school should this one close," said Cheatham. "And the effect of that would be all that funding [the district would receive] would stay in this community."

School Principal Helen Groome says it's unfortunate these conversations have to come up in the first place.

"This is a micro chasm of the problem throughout the state," said Groome. "It seems criminal to me for a Colorado school of distinction to become a school of extinction. And I really feel like we need to be looking at our budget situation throughout the state and do something that adequately funds K-12 education."

District officials say the budget task force will likely make their final recommendations to the board in April, then a final budget will adopted some time in May.

The school board will hold a public meeting on March 17, while the budget task force will hold another public meeting on March 21.

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