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Consensus on school merger proving elusive

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By Adrienne Anderson

The task force members charged with finding a solution to the school district's budget crisis are closer to a stalemate than a consensus.

Superintendent Bill Patterson said the group has requested more time and possibly more public input. In the face of a $300,000 deficit and declining enrollment, the district is considering combining kindergarten through eighth grade or the middle school and high school.

"The problem is, there just wasn't much separation between the options, and they all have their disadvantages," Patterson said.

For JoAnn Sorensen, the decision is too big to be made without more community input.

"The decision we are making certainly will have a financial impact," Sorensen said. "But it will also have huge community impacts. I think closing schools rips apart communities."

Bill Macy was mayor of Idaho Springs when the district initially decided to split the high school and middle school 10 years ago. He was a vocal opponent of the decision and said the downtown businesses suffered immediate losses.

"In the long term, I think the sense of community kind of fell off too," Macy said. "Homecoming used to be a huge deal here."

One of the reasons for the move was to attract more Evergreen students.

"It didn't flow right," Macy said. "Those who wanted the separation still sent their kids to Evergreen, and Clear Creek lost students and it adversely affected the (district's) ability to provide programming."

This is not the first time the district has explored closing schools. In 2005, the district discussed closing Georgetown Elementary and the middle school. No decision was made, but Georgetown parents banned together and turned the elementary into a charter to ensure it would stay open.

Sorensen said schools are an essential part of what makes small communities work. She referred to a recent Denver Post article that featured the town of Walsh, which bought a grocery store to keep it from closing. The article mentioned four things essential to a community's health: a post office, a school, a grocery store and churches.

"Georgetown did the same thing with their school," Sorensen said. "That's what I am talking about. Our community suffers when our schools close. The citizens need to understand how seriously we take this decision."

Sorensen does not think the task force is ready to present findings to the board, and many other members agreed. They have postponed the meeting with the school board and will meet again Dec. 2.

"We really need a community discussion," Sorensen said. "The discussion has not been broad enough. It has not been long enough. This is such an important issue we are playing with, and it deserves a full understanding before consent. I am not the only one asking for that broader discussion."