Patchwork schools

School District 51 won’t be engaging in a major new building program soon, thanks to last November’s defeat of ballot measures that would have funded construction and operation of new schools.

Instead, if the district adopts the recommendations of a committee assigned to explore alternatives for dealing with crowded schools, the Grand Valley will see at least one additional modular building, changes in scheduling at some schools and shifting of a number of students to other facilities.

The school district doesn’t have a lot of options. Voters rejected the tax increases that came with the ballot measures last fall in large part because of the uncertain economic times.

Given the worsening of the economy since then, the likelihood of convincing voters to pass a school bond issue any time soon is virtually nil.

The federal government’s economic stimulus bill might provide some assistance. House and Senate negotiators reportedly included several billion dollars for school construction in the compromise version of the bill they were working on Wednesday, but nothing close to the $20 billion that was in the original House version of the stimulus bill.

The local committee looking for alternatives for crowded schools rejected one familiar idea: year-round schools. It’s not surprising that school officials and the people advising them are reluctant to take on the inevitable controversy that accompanies any discussion of year-round school, but we don’t think the idea should be left completely off the table.

When new construction is unaffordable, it doesn’t make sense to leave existing facilities essentially vacant for three months each year.

We also think the district should resurrect another idea rejected by the committee: leasing vacant commercial buildings. Although many commercial buildings don’t meet the requirements of federal and state school laws, a few may be able to serve students on a limited basis.

One colossal unknown in all of this is the expected student population. Forecasting those numbers is difficult, even in normal times, and the district has recently scaled back its projected annual increase from 2 percent to 1 percent. However, some local observers expect that there may be a minor exodus, when school gets out this spring, of families that moved here because of work in the gas fields. That might reduce crowding next fall.

It is a difficult problem to deal with and, for now, patchwork solutions are the best that can be expected.


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