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Stapleton School Shortage Needs Creative Thinking

With future Stapleton schools seemingly unaffordable for Denver Public Schools, many moms and dads in the booming neighborhood wonder where they will enroll their young children. Parent power and public-private partnerships offer some promising solutions.

The scheme of tax-increment financing, or TIF, has left families at Stapleton and other neighborhoods high and dry. TIF provides subsidies to developers through property and retail sales taxes. TIF leaves other business owners and area homeowners with a greater share of the tax burden to support public services, including schools. A struggling economy has brought in fewer tax revenues than planned.

As a result, the Denver Public Schools master plan for four elementary schools and a middle school in the area seemingly lies out of reach. School district officials now estimate the two area elementary schools soon will be overcrowded, but so far have offered no real lasting fixes.

Rather than look at Stapleton’s schoolhouse squeeze as an obstacle, district leaders should embrace it as an opportunity. The board of education can enhance its innovative credentials by exploring a range of policies that expand choices and provide new funding possibilities.

Typically, districts sell bonds to purchase the cost of new construction directly. But DPS instead could adopt some form of public-private partnership to meet family demand and add more classroom space. Other districts have taken this approach to build schools more quickly and at a lower price.

Facing revenue shortfalls during the 1990s, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia launched an ambitious school construction program through leasing arrangements with private developers and other property owners. At the end of the lease period the school district owns the building. The school buildings largely were built on time and at a 15 percent cost savings to taxpayers.

Similarly, the Houston school district formed a partnership with a private developer to help alleviate its overcrowding problem. Two quality, spacious high schools were constructed a year faster than under traditional financing arrangements and at $20 million below district projections.

Under these plans the buildings belonged to the private company, but the school districts maintained control over curriculum, program, and personnel during agreed normal hours for a school week. The arrangements enabled the private owners to rent out the facilities to other groups on evenings and weekends, if they so desired.

But if the savings realized under such a public-private partnership would not be enough, DPS could consider pursuing another path, as well. The board could contract with local independent schools to provide education services. Families who can’t find space in the neighborhood school might jump at the idea. It wouldn’t be a first. The district has contracted with the private Escuela de Tlatelolco in northwest Denver.

Or better yet, the district could offer families a tuition voucher so they could select an independent school that best suits their children’s needs. The state supreme court’s 2004 decision to strike down the legislature’s pilot voucher program was based entirely on a supposed violation of the constitution’s “local control” provision. A locally-funded program overcomes this legal objection.

Also, parents who wish to stay within the public system could work with the school board to authorize a new public charter school in their neighborhood.

A private education management organization could leverage its position to lease or purchase property for the construction of an elementary or K-8 school, alleviating the district of some cost. Enrollment would be open to students on an equal basis regardless of their address, but the location would ensure that many neighborhood children would be served.

Even if the district does not act, individual families could opt for existing alternatives. For example, Colorado residents have access to numerous tuition-free, home-based public online programs. While the circumstances of many families preclude this path, virtual education may be an option for others. Additional intra-district alternatives are available.

Government subsidies and economic challenges have left many Stapleton neighborhood parents in an unfavorable situation. Now is the time to ease their pain by seeking new ways to fund school construction and by exploring outside educational opportunities.

Hard times open the door to give parental choice and public-private partnerships high priority. Cutting existing programs or moving kids to modular classrooms should be the plan of last resort.

This article originally was published in Education News Colorado on September 8, 2009.