The quality of Littleton Public Schools is a primary reason for living here—not just for those wanting a good education for their children, and not just because good schools maintain property values, but also because of the general caliber of people (neighbors, employers, employees) such an asset attracts. One aspect of the District’s well-deserved reputation has been consistent support from the community—including having never failed to approve a mill levy increase or bond issue.
That record of support is now at risk, thanks to an over-reaching, weakly justified proposal that is, claim District leaders, only the first in a series of funding requests to come at 10-year intervals.
What You See (or Don’t See)
LPS wants $300 million for school construction, renovation and equipment over the next four years, funded by general obligation bonds to be repaid with $568 million from increased property taxes, at about $22 million a year over 25 years.
Or possibly 33% more than that, as the ballot language sets no mill levy limit but instead allows the District to collect up to $30 million annually, which LPS says could be used to accelerate retirement of these bonds—maybe just in time to fund a new bond issue in 2028, and yet another in 2038 (and beyond?). And each of the those bond issues would be marketed to the taxpayers as no tax increase, according to District personnel—which may or may not be true, depending on how much funding they decide to seek each time.
If It Ain’t Broke…
The District’s long-range plan is to replace all schools at a rate of one every 3 years—a necessity, they say, because buildings averaging over 60 years old cannot be effectively maintained or adequately support “modern instruction”. Objective evidence for that claim is scant.
While it is likely a few schools with wood framing are approaching the end of their useful life, that is highly questionable for masonry, steel and concrete buildings; and their interiors arguably can be reconfigured (“modernized”) at reasonable cost, as has been done previously (e.g., Runyon, Twain, Wilder). And, by the way, none of those outdated wood structures is targeted for replacement under this bond proposal.
Details (God’s, or the Devil’s?)
The proposed program has other goals, a few explicit in the ballot issue but most linked only loosely to recommendations from the Long Range Planning Committee (LRPC). Among them:
- Career and Technical Education (CTE) center. It’s hard to dispute that, in the changing world economy, alternatives to academic college degrees are desirable. The opportunity to create a reasonably located and configured CTE campus (possibly on the former Schomp site by Littleton High School) is timely. But LPS has only belatedly conceded that “feeder” programs are needed on-site at secondary schools, upgrading spaces once used for wood shops, metal shops and the like—and the LRPC report makes no mention of, or provision for, such dispersed improvements
- A “junior” sports stadium. Given the heavy load of team sports at the lone LPS stadium (shared by 3 high schools) and the rise in competitive sports overall, the need for another safe, maintainable venue is obvious; and middle school fields intended for PE classes and recreational use are proving increasingly inadequate to pick up the added load. But is it not possible that “future education” will (or should) place less emphasis on competitive sports?
- Artificial turf. The District wants to replace over-used grass fields with synthetic turf. Admittedly, the overall added expense is far surpassed by savings from not irrigating, mowing and restoring natural grass. The advantage is enhanced safety for young athletes running, falling and sliding on those surfaces—especially as overuse wears out grass and compacts the soil so that injuries skyrocket. Because that affects many more PE students and recreational users than competitive athletes, the net benefits may warrant the investment.
- Replace all furniture. That some furniture in some schools is original (or nearly) is undeniable; and the model of students sitting in static rows facing a lecturer is old-school for most subjects and many instructional approaches. But declaring all furniture “outmoded” and needing wholesale replacement is unsupportable. From “modern education” models cited by the LRPC to related studies found all over the internet, the consistent emphasis—more than just “new furniture”—is flexible layouts with a variety of seating, work/display surfaces, lighting and equipment to support a more effective range of class lectures, small group study and individual creativity—including quiet places to get away and think. And, judging from LRPC schematic plans, the “modern” classrooms proposed by District planners look much like existing classrooms, which means LPS should be able to reconfigure existing spaces to serve “modern instruction” reasonably well. Until District planners can explain a clear vision for “future instruction” in “future classrooms”, the District should hold off investing prematurely in an ill-defined vision.
- ADA upgrades everywhere. Despite the District’s reasonable progress with “just-in-time” upgrades to stay ahead of current needs site-by-site, many schools do still fall short. One-third have physical limits that are difficult and/or costly to overcome—e.g., short flights of stairs without space for ramps. Half the others have awkward access between floors (slow-moving stair lifts or isolated elevators); but, aside from isolated minor issues, the rest are accessible. Is that really enough to justify replacing all buildings—especially after we invest another $15 million to fix those same buildings over the next few years?
- $50 million here and there. Every school has its “wish list”, accumulated over time from requests that didn’t fit in Facilities’ yearly budget or were low on a bond program priority list. Each department has priorities, particularly Information Technology and Security, though the most essential have been addressed repeatedly (as with the 2013 bond). But at what point do continued refinements approach the point of diminishing returns? Technology changes constantly; and turning schools into bunkers surely conflicts with the supportive, reassuring environment envisioned for modern education.
Crazy-Quilt School Boundaries
Painful as such changes are to school families, the District’s awkward, erratic school boundaries need a sanity check: to reduce transportation costs (in dollars and in kids’ wasted, often exhausting bus time), balance student loads in schools and revive the “neighborhood school” concept. LPS built schools per demographics of the 1950s and 1960s, which leaves them too close together in some areas now and missing altogether in others. Whether from lack of a good site or long-declining enrollment, the failure to build an elementary school south of Dry Creek Road has trapped too many kids on buses driving to/from schools far from their own neighborhoods, often driving past schools that can’t fit them in. Resetting boundaries is unforgivably overdue—but why would anyone start replacing schools now, before even beginning development of a sensible new boundary scheme? What if sites chosen for rebuilding today don’t fit well in the best boundary plan identified tomorrow?
Be Careful What You Ask For
The LRPC cited a “Future of Jobs Report” from the World Economic Forum, whose “Top 10 Skills in 2020” emphasizes critical thinking and interpersonal dynamics over tech skills that, most experts agree, will require almost continuous retraining in the future. Asking taxpayers to pay disproportionately for buildings and equipment now may reduce the likelihood that they will/can pay higher taxes in coming years for better teaching/learning and more complete, meaningful education.
Yours, Mine and Ours
The debt LPS proposes to incur, and the high cost of servicing that debt, differ only in scale from the mortgages taken on by most homeowners. Whether that new load is affordable, especially in face of other pending tax increases, is a question each taxpayer must answer personally (and possibly looking beyond their immediate interests). Trusting in the District’s record of quality education, sound fiscal management and leadership integrity, and recognizing the inestimable value to our children and our community, it should be hard not to vote “yes”. But if you do reject it, don’t stop there: tell the Board of Education that your vote meant “No, I can’t support this; but come back with a more detailed, practical, better-argued plan next year”.
Whatever the outcome, we should all advocate for our schools–public and charter—which, if imagined thoughtfully and managed pragmatically, mean more to our shared future than many of us may realize.