Some District 51 teachers are saying they feel blindsided, abandoned and upset by the School Board’s odd headlong rush towards closing three traditional schools this fall. The District cites falling birth rates, the pandemic, online schools, families moving out of the area and other reasons for the decline in students as reasons to close the schools.
But that doesn’t fit the demographic narrative we’ve been told as recently as the end of last year.
Just last November the Daily Sentinel reported that the western slope has seen substantial population growth over the last decade and Mesa County is expected to keep growing over the next few decades due to in-migration, saying this brought “a sense of hope that District 51 will see an increase in students.”
Colorado Mesa University Associate Economics Professor Nathan Perry, whom the Sentinel quoted in the November, 2022 article, said he believed increased enrollment in D-51 schools could be coming soon because “19-year-olds are moving to the Grand Valley at a greater rate than any other age group, followed closely by 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds.” Perry added that the State of Colorado forecasts that the birth rate in Mesa County is expected to increase starting next year and rise steadily through 2040. The Sentinel article included the following chart based on information provided by the Colorado State Demography Office, which shows birth rates in Mesa County are forecast to increase:
In 2018, Shannon Bingham, the same demographer now recommending closures to the District, said Fruita schools were overcrowded from families moving in, that new schools needed to be built, and that strong growth could be expected to continue for the next five years. Bingham predicted then that student enrollment at Wingate Elementary School was expected to grow by nearly 13 percent over the next six years, which would bring that growth into 2024.
So which is it? Is school population shrinking? Is it expected to grow? And why the rush towards school closures now, when demographics change so constantly and growth is predicted in the not-too-distant future? And why is Bingham, who predicted strong growth in our area in the not-too-recent past, the same person now predicting a population collapse going into the future? And doesn’t all this show that school population shrinks and grows all the time, anyway?
Teachers say the Board is treating the school closure matter like it’s an emergency situation, when a decision of this magnitude would normally have been under consideration for a long time. Normally an issue of this magnitude would have been talked about in upper level administration and Executive Council meetings for at least a year in advance, they say, and employees would have been made aware such a decision might be coming down the pike for a long time. The Mesa Valley Education Association, which advocates for teachers, would normally have been asked to help draft questions for a public opinion survey that were strictly impartial and that would have mentioned the benefits of smaller schools. The MVEA would also have been asked to help create a fair process for handling displaced teachers at the schools the Board wants to close.
But for some reason, none of that happened.
A foregone conclusion?
Several D-51 teachers say they noticed the biased language in the survey the School Board put out to the public regarding their proposed closures, saying the language of the questions pushed people towards specific choices. For example, one question asked respondents whether they want the schools to run more efficiently or stay inefficient, without mentioning how smaller schools tend to offer students a better experience.
Former Mesa Valley Education Association President Darren Cook said,
“Small schools, the things we were striving for not a decade ago with programs to build ‘schools within a school’ to promote a sense of belonging, are now being castigated as inefficient and ineffective. This is nonsense. They very well may cost more, but where do educators, including administrators, want their kids? In small schools. Why? Because we know they are effective. We know this is where our kids build a sense of identity and bond with the staff. Look at our highest performing schools: New Emerson, Scenic, Dual Immersion Academy, Palisade High School…All small, and all are our educators’ choices for sending their [own] kids.”
Cook and other teachers say they would have preferred a balanced presentation on the benefits of small schools, and let the public decide if the extra cost was worth it. They also think more dignity and care should have been afforded the staff potentially facing displacement.
About this, Cook said,
“We have a lot of experienced staff that doesn’t know where, or if they will be teaching next year, and all of this [is happening] during a time where we are having trouble finding qualified teachers to teach our students. It’s madness…Some of the teachers have been teaching in their rooms for 20+ years, and whether we want to admit it or not, finding out your school is being closed at a hostile meeting on a Friday afternoon is a blow not unlike a death. It could have been handled so much better.”
Questions about the chosen demographer
Some teachers are also suspicious about why the D-51 School Board hired Shannon Bingham to be their point man in the decision.
According to his website, Bingham seems to specialize in helping school boards sell school closures to skeptical constituencies while allowing board members to preserve an appearance of impartiality in the process.
An October 9, 2022 article in the Anchorage, Alaska Daily News about school closures in that district remarked that Bingham, who was also the Anchorage School District’s demographer, “has helped close schools across the American west.” Search results show Bingham has recently recommended school closures in Douglas County (CO), Bellevue, WA, Anchorage, AK, Detroit, MI and Provo, UT. Recommending closures of traditional public schools seems to be what he does.
Teachers also suspect Bingham may be overcharging the District for his services. The same October, 2022 Anchorage Daily News article about Bingham’s
consultancy there says the Anchorage School District put “an upper limit of $108,000” on his contract.
According to GlassDoor, demographers typically make $98,000-$103,000/year, so a single contract topping out at $108,000 seems excessive.
That $108k figure also appears to be far higher than other independent, for-profit demographics companies typically command for their services, even for projects that are much more involved and require more expertise and resources.
For example, in March of 2021 the City of Fresno, California (pop. 544,510) hired a private demographics firm called Geoinovo Mapping Solutions, Inc. to help them with a redistricting process (pdf). That project required five sub-consultants, the creation of multiple GIS maps, the creation of an interactive website with an online mapping tool that residents could use to submit their own suggested maps, assurance of compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and the California Fair Maps Act of 2019, facilitation of five community meetings and translation of all of the project’s findings into Spanish, Hmong and Punjabi, all for the fixed fee of $65,000.
Colorado State Demographer, Elizabeth Garner, says “I would not be surprised to see [independent, for-profit demographic] consultants getting paid $150-$200 or more per hour,” but if Bingham made $200/hour, he would have to have put in 540 hours, or the equivalent of 13.5 forty-hour work weeks, to earn $108,000 in a single contract. Garner also said the state makes population estimates and forecasts at the county level available on their website here. She says Mesa County “probably reached their peak school age population in 2020 and is forecast to decline by about 1,000 kids between 2020 and 2030.”
District 51 currently serves about 21,000 students, so a decline of 1,000 students between 2020 and 2030 is only 4% of the number of students in the entire district.
So are these proposed school closures truly justified?
That seems to be a matter of opinion, and these days you can apparently buy an opinion, which teachers believe may be what the D-51 School Board has done.
Teachers say they believe the District had a plan going into this matter and hired Bingham to help distance themselves from the bad publicity of closing schools. They believe this particular demographer helps rig opinion polls to give school boards a mandate to close schools while leaving District leaders free from scandal.
And one more thing:
The “About Us” page on Bingham’s website says the “offices” of Western Demographics are in Boulder, but the address of the business, 1750 30th Street, #424, is a Mail Station storefront in a strip mall that also houses three weed dispensaries.