Half of District 51 schools are at or over capacity

English as a second language teacher Alisa Bielsky tests fifth grade student Francisco Arvaya-Robles at a table in the hall at Rocky Mountain Elementary School.

Voters who were certain school crowding in District 51 would right itself without 2008’s school bond measure were partially right.

The prediction that enrollment would decrease at over-capacity schools as local unemployment increased came true at 14 schools. But nine of those schools remain at or above capacity, as measured by district standards for how many students a school can comfortably fit and educate.

Twenty-one of the district’s 40 school buildings and their adjoining modular units were at or over capacity this fall, and 23 experienced an increase in enrollment from the previous year. Total enrollment has dropped by 68 students since the bond year of 2008, when 23 schools were considered overcrowded.

Fifteen schools are more crowded this year than they were in 2008. Five others have eased crowding by 10 or fewer students.

Most of the schools listed as packed in 2008 are the same schools stuffed with students today in northwest, northern and central Grand Junction; Fruita; Orchard Mesa; and Palisade.

District 51 Board of Education member Greg Mikolai said he would love to have another high school in town, but he’s undecided where it should go. Board members Leslie Kiesler and Diann Rice believe rebuilding an aging Orchard Mesa Middle School, one of the jobs the bond issue would have funded, should take priority.

Rice added her second wish would be to construct a new elementary school near Rim Rock Elementary, which filled fast after opening five years ago, or by Rocky Mountain Elementary, which was near capacity in October and added a modular unit during winter break to create more student space.

“That’s all wishful thinking because we don’t have the money,” Rice said.

Uncertain how much money they may have to cut from a 2011–12 budget, district leaders are not eager to spend millions or even thousands of dollars on school construction, and restrictions about how much of the budget has to go to nonconstruction costs would likely prevent that action anyway.

For now, schools are: adding modular units (37 stand in the district) to add space; reorganizing rooms for different or shared purposes; or sending students that live within the boundaries of a crowded school to a less-populated, nearby school.

Melissa Callahan DeVita, District 51’s executive director of support services, said moving students to another school is rare and usually happens at the elementary school level. Seventeen such transfers have occurred this year.

The district sees a glimmer of monetary hope in a new foundation that will have 501(c)3 status, its own board, and a mission of raising money for educational purposes. Mikolai said he hopes the foundation will someday use donations to help build one or more schools, but it’s not a near-term solution.

“We hope the foundation will help with things like that in the future, but not now when it’s in its embryonic stage,” he said.

Presenting another bond measure to voters isn’t out of the question, but it’s also not something school board members have discussed as a distinct possibility any time soon.

Schools in the Redlands, Clifton and eastern Pear Park are less likely than schools in the rest of the district to be crowded, as many of those schools have lost students since 2008.

The Redlands population is aging out of the school system more than other areas, according to DeVita. Young families with school-age children are more prone to move into newer or less-expensive subdivisions, she said.

On the other side of the valley, DeVita said the Clifton area is losing students more because people who have lost jobs or pay are increasingly moving with their children into relative’s homes, which may be in another school’s boundaries.

All that movement makes it difficult to predict how full schools will be day-to-day in neighborhoods hardest hit by the economic downturn.

“Those populations are very transient,” DeVita said. “You can be down (students) one month and up the next.”


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