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.
Assuming that population of school age children will decline in D51 over the next ten years, why not suggest that charter schools be closed and combined with traditional schools.
I am heartbroken by this news as well. I want to offer my own perspective as a mother who has had children in both types of District 51 schools. We are enrolled in this district because we have the option charter schools. My oldest attended traditional school, he’s now 24. I don’t find fault in our school district, but in the model of education we currently follow. I began to research the best school systems globally and found that those in Scandinavian countries are some of the highest achievers but are also reporting better mental health. I believe that most parents are concerned about the mental health of our children, technology is a contributing factor in this. I know that many of us are sickened by suicide rate in Mesa County.
I understand the concern many are voicing, with my oldest child, I only cared about test scores and looked at them all the time. Now, my main priority isn’t just achievement, it has broadened to mental health as well. For my younger children, I wanted something different and thankfully found Juniper Ridge. My 5th grader now counts down the days until she returns to school, she and my 2nd grader are thriving there. I realize that this is a no- win situation and I’m saddened by it, but closing charter schools isn’t the best solution either.
This particular school board is not afraid to back down, so be prepared for a long drawn out fight. This board is all about making big cuts to D51 and making it seem like it’s all in the name of saving taxpayer money. All the while, the private charter schools receive more and more of that taxpayer money. This school board is ruthless. The community is going to need to ban together fiercely over this issue.
The “board” meets at R5 High School on Tuesday, 21st of February, at 5 p.m. They LOVE a good crowd so show up and let your voice be heard.
Shannon Bingham also suggests that charter schools can utilize the closed school buildings…. https://alaskapublic.org/2022/11/02/anchorage-school-district-administrators-propose-cuts-to-immersion-programs-and-ignite/
Why do I have the feeling that six months to a year or two after closing the schools, District 51 will be asking taxpayers to vote for funding to build more schools?
That’s not the goal. The goal is to make public schools so untenable that parents are forced to put their kids into charter schools.
Exactly. Charter schools are private schools.
Yup. Publicly funded private schools
As a parent of a 5th grader who will be attending East and a kindergarten who will be attending OAE in 2023/24 I’m appalled by the Board of Directors for not being transparent with anyone but themselves. Thank you for sharing this information regarding this Bingham guy who obviously doesn’t come into the schools to see the culture and community of the schools. We can not let this happen without parents, d51 staff and community members be part of an impactful proposal to our community.
Keep in mind that everything in Alaska is MUCH more expensive. So, I am wondering if there is a comparison that can be drawn with a similar school district in the lower 48 states.
Is there any way to put at least a temporary halt on this shutdown? Could we also get the Governor’s office involved? He is very pro-education and may have some valuable input. Ideas to implement for the long term.
Yes, this needs to be revisited! I am 75. I still think I had a better elementary education in the ’50s and ’60s than has been available since! I would love to see that come back. Our future depends on the education of our youth. The money spent now will reap benefits a thousandfold in years to come. THAT should be the primary focus of the school board.
That address alone is worth a LOT of scrutiny and will be damn hard to explain or excuse. Good work, Anne!!!!
He doesn’t even have the correct faux address on his website pages. He shows 1730 not 1750 30th Street, #424. Real professional!
It took some figuring out. His “office” couldn’t have been in the Best Buy.
I had that trouble too. So I checked Western Demographics on the Secretary of State’s web site for his correct address. It seems that he has a real hard time keeping his corporation current by filing his annual report on time. It has become delinquent and had to be cured many times.
1st of all, Mr. Cook couldn’t be more wrong. I wouldn’t send my kid to palisade for any reason. We’re a Junction family. 2nd, this is the voting public of Mesa County–the same group of voters that gave us Lauren Bobert. They’ve selected a school board with zero knowledge of the job to be done. What kind of decisions did they expect putting a strip club bouncer on the school board? 3rd, despite what they say, caprock academy and other public charter schools offer a subpar education (classical is code for white supremacy) for all but the top 5%–same as any school. Because Caprock has a smaller population it looks like their kids achieve more but on average they do just as well (or poorly) as any school in this area. And Cap Rock–home of. The rapist teacher– can remove any kid they don’t want out. My only question is, how long is it going to take for Andrea Haitz, the d51 school board president, to chop up the properties and sell them off piecemeal. Finally, there’s a lot of people that scream about socialism in Mesa county. Just wait until your entire population is uneducated because Mommy couldn’t drive them to a charter school. Then you’ll find out what socialism is. We won’t need to build schools. What we will need to build is prisons. Lots of them.
I don’t have kids in D-51 system, but it’s always good to know what the school board is doing. Kids should get the best, most complete education they can get, regardless of their zip code.
Thank you for all you do to keep everyone informed.