Truth And Hope For Wheat Ridge Schools

Let me introduce myself. I’m Susan Miller, and I represent District Four on the Jefferson County Board of Education. So why am I here writing about Wheat Ridge? Because I’m a fiercely proud mom of four Farmer graduates.

We choiced our first child into Wheat Ridge High School back in 2010, when Griff Wirth and his amazing team were well along in turning around a once-great school that had been in decline. Our youngest graduated in 2019. During those years, I served as PTA president, SAC chair, Capstone Judge, and attended more games, art and STEM exhibitions, and other performances and assemblies than I can count.  

My family also saw dramatic changes in the City of Wheat Ridge, as the council’s vision for the future came to life.

In sum, I’m here because I am deeply committed to the future of this city, its schools and its community.

There is an old saying that people faced with a crisis need to hear two things: truth and hope.

The inescapable truth is that, like many others around the country, our school district is facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Due to a combination of factors – among which are falling birth rates and declining academic results – enrollment in district-run schools has been declining, and revenue along with it. In addition, federal ESSER funding that was provided during the COVID pandemic will run out in 2024. And to make matters more challenging, our staffing and operating costs have been increasing. 

This year, the district will run a deficit of $32.5 million. If no action is taken, the cumulative deficit over the next three years will exceed $100 million, shrinking Jeffco’s reserves to close to their minimum allowable level under TABOR.

Closing 16 elementary schools (and hopefully generating cash from their sale or lease) was just the first of many hard decisions district management and the Board will have to make to address this rapidly growing financial predicament while fully funding the initiatives needed to recover student learning losses and substantially improving our academic results.

That’s the truth. And it’s not pretty.

But there are also changes underway that give me a lot of hope for the future of the Wheat Ridge Articulation Area.

First and foremost, for the first time all schools in Wheat Ridge are going to report to the same Community Superintendent. If what I’ve seen elsewhere is any guide, that will produce a wide range of benefits, including:

• Curriculum alignment from K through 12 (including coordinated rollout of the district’s new reading and math curricula);

• Much more effective collaboration, learning and transfer of best practice among elementary, middle and high school educators and staff;

• More efficient and effective professional development;

• Alignment of elementary to high school pathways;

• Better coordinated and efficient use of district and school level support services, such as those focused on student and staff mental and physical health.

Second, I’ve recently seen the Wheat Ridge City Council focus on the city’s schools much more intensely than before.

Along with many members of the public and Wheat Ridge High School staff, they have called on Superintendent Tracy Dorland and the Board of Education to make good not just on what WRHS was promised from the 2018 bond issue (Prop 5B), but also from the 2004 bond issue (Prop 3B), which ran out of money before improvements (like a new auditorium) could be completed at Wheat Ridge High School, and which have remained undone for 18 years.

Last but not least, I have great hope for WRHS and the wider Wheat Ridge Articulation Area because for 12 years, I have seen the power of the Farmers’ Tradition of Excellence and what it means to this tight and loyal community. 

I see it all around me when I visit WRHS, at the Farmers 5000, when I hear of organizations like the Gill Foundation supporting the expansion of STEM programs in Wheat Ridge schools, or when I hear about math teacher Ms. Gothard easily convincing Wheat Ridge alums and community members to come to the WRHS for Career Day to talk with students about their jobs and career paths.

And now that all the schools in Wheat Ridge will finally be aligned under one Community Superintendent, and supported by the City Council and a unified community, I’m confident that the Farmers’ Tradition of Excellence and all its beneficial effects will grow more powerful than ever before.

Jeffco Public Schools faces unprecedented challenges. That’s the painful truth. But in Wheat Ridge, there are plenty of reasons to hope.

Susan Miller represents District Four on the Jefferson County Board of Education.

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