The stated purpose of the Jan. 10 Buena Vista school district board of education’s work session was to discuss and gather feedback on all the district’s recent property sales decisions. However, most of the hour-long work session ended up being devoted to discussing the presently uncertain future of Chaffee County High School.
Board president Suzette Hachmann opened the meeting with a brief summary of the current status of surplus properties. These include the sales of the Nathrop Schoolhouse, the McGinnis Gym and administrative building, the archway property at the southwest corner of Pinon and Court streets and the Chaffee County High School building on East Main Street.
The board had decided not to pursue further the sale of the maintenance building, located behind the administrative building to the north.
“The CCHS building has been sold to the owner of the Colorado Autism Center,” said Hachmann in the middle of the summary.
Following the summary she correctly predicted that most of the work session attendees would want to discuss the CCHS building sale.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” said Brett Mitchell, board vice president.
Abruptly the hybrid meeting’s audio and video feed cut.
“Our community’s most at-risk youth are being shoved aside for the sake of money, and then conveniently the virtual meeting dies?” asked Tonya Wyles in the Zoom chat.
When the virtual feed resumed, community members with various CCHS associations were voicing concerns about the future of the program.
Some represented organizations like Mini-Blessings and the Boys & Girls Club, which work closely with CCHS. Others were alumni and former or current staff members.
All the commenters stressed the value and importance of CCHS to both the students it serves as well as the community.
“We’ve had a relationship with CCHS for the last 10 years. We really rely on the assistance we get from these kids,” said Susan Shampine, representing Mini-Blessings. “These community projects are very important.”
Concerns primarily centered around budget cut proposals and the future location possibilities for the program.
“It sounds like the decision was made and property was sold before any of the key players were brought in,” said Shampine, adding that the decision “seemed more money-driven than community driven.”
Asked if any staff would be cut, Hachmann equivocated.
“So, not exactly – yes and no,” she said, prompting groans and sounds of discontent from the crowd.
“That’s for the superintendent and Christine (Bailey, CCHS principal) to decide what it looks like with a smaller budget,” she said after the crowd noise subsided.
“Right now this feels like this would be a really hard hand to be dealt,” said former CCHS principal Mike Post. “CCHS is not that building, it is something else. What it is, you need some resources.”
Reached for comment, Bailey expressed doubt that the proposed budget would allow CCHS to move forward without losing staff.
“The preliminary budget for staffing CCHS is being given to work with for next year is a little less than half what we have had in prior years,” she said. “I cannot move forward without cutting staff.”
CCHS currently has 26 students with a maximum limit of 40, 4 teachers and 4 dedicated staff.
Bailey said 38-47 students was a more typical range, but unspecified changes in the enrollment process resulted in a lower numbers this year.
In a follow-up statement, Hachmann said the budget is not yet final.
“Over several years, the board and district leadership have been evaluating the costs of operating CCHS in its current program model,” she said. “The analysis indicates the cost is over twice as much per student than any other school in the district and the district must supplement well over $200,000 beyond funding provided by the state of Colorado.
“The board and district is committed to continuing to provide a school experience for students whose risk factors are impeding their access and success for learning at BVHS. We firmly believe there are ways to more efficiently and effectively serve these identified students without compromising their access to success while at the same time being able to reallocate resources to reach more students across the district.”
Regarding location, Hachmann said opportunities and resources would expand should CCHS move closer to BVHS. But several community members at the work session pushed back hard at this suggestion, insisting that an environment independent from the alternative that students exit is crucial to the CCHS program
“Before deciding to sell the CCHS building on Main Street, the board made sure we had multiple viable options for a new location,” Hachmann said after the meeting. “A separate building on the Avery-Parsons campus, repurposing unused space in the Admin/McGinnis Gym buildings, renovating the maintenance building, unused space in the BVHS building, a separate building on the BVHS campus, purchasing a different, less expensive building in town, renting space in town and renting space in the CMC building were all considerations.
“Currently the most viable option for CCHS is the Sprung structure on the BVHS campus.”
“I haven’t heard other viable options,” said Bailey, noting also that she did not consider the Sprung building a good candidate. “It’s a windowless tent in the backyard of a brand new building.”
As the time allotted for the work session was coming to an end, former CCHS counselor Erin Johnke was emotional.
“I’m worried about kids losing their world,” she said.
The session was ended with promises to address questions and comments from the Zoom chat and other unresolved issues at a later date.
“As staff, students, and the surrounding CCHS community have emphasized, a dedicated space for CCHS along with the tight knit staff culture is paramount to the success of the program,” said Hachmann’s followup statement. “The board will hold high these goals as we finalize plans for the next school year.”