By Lisa Young
It was an emotional night for Delta County School Board members as they voted to place one high school in Hotchkiss with one K-8 in Paonia and one K-8 in Hotchkiss. The North Fork School of Integrated Studies (NFSIS) K-6 will remain in Paonia with no changes to North Fork Montessori at Crawford.
Prior to voting on where the schools would be, the board unanimously passed a resolution stating that the change would take place this fall for the 2021-22 year. Board members had the opportunity to wait until the 2022-23 school year but declined after speaking with several school principals.
With his voice tightening and cracking, school board president Jan Tuin popped a throat lozenge in his mouth as he struggled to speak. He recapped the history and reasoning behind the reconfiguration of the schools in the North Fork Valley.
Among the justifications for the change, Tuin mentioned declining enrollment, cost of maintaining two high schools and the nearly $750,000 saving per year for the district. He also mentioned that the changes would offer more opportunities for students and the ability to retain staff.
“Still with all that information, it’s not an easy decision, very difficult to come to the right conclusion,” he said.
Tuin admitted that he “waffled” a bit on the timing of the change when speaking to community members, but came back to the side of the principals in order to “not drag out the pain” in essence.
Board members Beth Suppes, Dan Burke, Linda Ewing and Ron Germann also came to the conclusion that it would be best to move forward with the changes to give students the “best opportunity for learning.”
As the board neared discussion on the placement of schools, the tension in the auditorium at Delta Family Center grew as did the number of YouTube watchers. Online viewers swelled to over 270 anxious parents, students and community members who held their collective breathe.
Linda Ewing, board secretary, presented the resolution and made the official motion to place the high school in Hotchkiss with the K-8 school model, board member Beth Suppes seconded the motion and a lengthy emotional discussion followed.
Each board member was given the opportunity to give their rationale for voting for or against the motion. It was obvious that school board members were being torn between logic and emotion.
Dan Burke, school board vice president and former teacher, coach and principal at Hotchkiss High School, took the most time to present his rationale for moving the high school to the town of Hotchkiss.
Burke mentioned the cost of transportation and the possibility of losing students on Redlands Mesa to neighboring Cedaredge if the high school moved to Paonia among his justifications for supporting the resolution.
He also spoke about the central location of the town of Hotchkiss in the valley with the new soccer fields, baseball fields, the Nature Connection, the bike paths, the swimming pool, West Elk Medical Clinic and City Market.
He brought up the football field, track, the two gyms, the refurbished and “stable” gym floor, the agriculture program and shop at Hotchkiss High School. Burke also ran through a number of the comments from the community, teachers and staff citing that most favored the Hotchkiss option.
“When you make a decision of this magnitude it impacts families which tears me apart,” said Burke, his voice shaking as he began to talk about the culture, educational excellence and traditions of both high schools.
“I was a part of these battles athletically, they were heated, I guarantee you. Paonia was always a hot topic on our schedules ... these traditions and state championships will never leave us... We will not forget this and we will do everything in our power to keep those traditions alive,” said Burke, his voice finally breaking.
“This reconfiguration was hard work, sleepless nights, constant meetings and valuable conversations. We didn’t agree all the time, I can tell you that…” said Burke ending with several quotes on change.
“The biggest problem I see with the high school in Hotchkiss is that Paonia is taking the very, very largest brunt of the change,” said board member Ron Germann.
“There won’t be a higher education school in Paonia anymore and I have a great concern with not having a school in each community,” he said.
School board member Beth Suppes said her decision was made “completely fact based in regards to the three pillars the board discussed” prior.
“That was the educational opportunities, the enrollment and of course the fiscal responsibility that we have as a board ... I did listen and read all of the constituents who pleaded with me to make the change into the Paonia High School,” she said.
Ewing said her main concern was that middle school students would be well prepared for high school and that the rebranding take place early rather than wait until high school.
“Otherwise, they’re going to be separate and they’re not going to be a unit a couple of years into high school and we’ve solved nothing,” she said.
Tuin, struggling to speak, said the process had been incredibly difficult.
“I’ve wrestled back and forth on so many issues,” he said, adding that he believed the middle school philosophy was a better fit for the students.
“It up roots perhaps the most academic award winning school in our district,” Tuin said referring to Paonia Elementary school.
“And we are causing only one community to make all the sacrifices if we do this option. No Hotchkiss student or family will be affected where as every student and every student and family in Paonia will be affected,” said Tuin. “It’s not what’s best for Paonia students at least and likewise the community of Paonia will be the only one experiencing the sacrifices made if the high school is in Hotchkiss.”
Superintendent Caryn Gibson told the school board that after looking at the data, the modeling and the fiscal responsibility that the leadership team at the district level “leans toward and recommends the two K-8’s and the one high school in Hotchkiss just as looking at our data.”
“Before you make a final vote, I have watched all of you and the dedication and love and support you give this school district is outstanding. We are very lucky to have all of you,” Gibson said, “I believe in our staff members. I believe in our students. We’re going to make great things happen.”
Voting in favor of the Hotchkiss high school K-8 model option was Burke, Ewing and Suppes. Tuin and Germann voted against the measure. The reconfiguration will take place this fall.
Additional meetings will be held on the rebranding process. The naming of the new high school has not been finalized and there remains questions to what changes Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) will make in regards to the combining of Hotchkiss and Paonia athletic teams and other activities.