By Lisa Young

Staff writer

Delta County School District 50J hosted several meetings in both Paonia and Hotchkiss last week to discuss the K-12 reconfiguration of the community’s schools. Two of those meetings were held at the high schools in question providing both in-person and online attendance.

Superintendent Caryn Gibson reminded the audience at the meetings that the discussion was about a total K-12 system for the North Fork communities of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.

“I want to remind you that this is hard, this is not easy standing in front of all of you sharing that the high school may change but in order to grow we need to change,” Gibson told the Paonia community Wednesday night.

Her message to parents, staff, students and community members in Hotchkiss on the following night was much the same.

“I want to tell you this is hard. Change is hard. But it’s kinda that ‘good to great.’ How we keep great things going on for our kids ... and to grow and change is hard. And sometimes we have to get out of comfort zone… if there was an easy decision for this it would have been made a long time ago,” Gibson said.

Gibson and district staff provided both groups with a detailed 45-minute presentation highlighting the history of the district, a past bond failure that led to a four high school system in the county and a current status report of the schools in the North Fork valley.

Due to the drop in enrollment over several decades, attributed to the closure of two coal mines in the valley, the district revived the North Fork Task Force which met for five months and reviewed nine different scenarios for school reconfiguration. The task force was delayed because of COVID-19, but the topic is back on track with a final decision expected at the school board meeting on Feb. 25.

Gibson asked participants in the meetings to have “a district lens” when considering the two options while also acknowledging that others have their “own lens.” In preparation for the change, the district gathered “a lot of pros and cons” concerning the two re-configuring options via an online survey.

Gibson outlined the two options remaining on the table. Option One: Hotchkiss — High school with K-8. Paonia-K-8 and K-6 (NFSIS). Option Two: Paonia — High School with K-5 and K-5 (NFSIS). Hotchkiss — Middle school and K-5.

“This discussion is about looking into increasing options and opportunities for kids as they graduate from our schools,” Gibson said, adding that the district must also maintain effectiveness, efficiency and financially responsibility.

Jim Farmer, human resources director, showed the overall enrollment for the district highlighting the continued decline in Paonia and Hotchkiss (including Crawford).

According to the numbers the combined high school students in the North Fork in 1979-80 was 489. That number has dropped to 309 students in 2020-21. The district anticipates a further drop to 287 students in the year 2026-27. (See figure:1)

Kurt Clay, assistant superintendent and public relations, talked about the relationship between declining enrollment and the cost of educating students in the district.

“All these work together. It’s really important that we look at what it costs at each school,” said Clay showing a chart with 2020/21 cost per student at the four district high schools excluding food service and Special Education (SPED).

While the district received $7,890 per student from state funding in 2020-21 the cost to educate students at the four high schools varied. Delta ($5,811.44), Cedaredge ($6,369.12), Hotchkiss ($8,532.49) and Paonia ($9,078.97) all per student figures. (See figure:2)

Clay said if things stay the same, staff cuts would become inevitable. By combining the North Fork schools the district would save approximately $750,000 per year and the ability to retain staff. A one-time cost of $650,000 would mostly be taken up with re-branding the new North Fork High School.

Clay, who also heads up transportation, said there would also be additional costs for transportation. He said the district has 43 bus routes running approximately 2,800 miles a day. He said it’s important to notice where the students live.

“We have to look at how much time our kids are on the bus. Potentially if you move them back... some students could be on for 2 hours and forty minutes a day which is a long time, so have to look at that,” he said.

A most frequently asked questions round as well as a ten minute per topic discussion rounded out the nearly two hour meetings. Topics included how people felt about each of the options presented as well as concerns on transportation and re-branding.

The next opportunity for input will be at two school board work sessions. The first is Thursday, Feb. 18 at Paonia Jr/Sr at 4:30 p.m. The second work session will be Tuesday, Feb. 23 at Hotchkiss High School at 4:30 p.m.

The final decision on the K-12 reconfigure in the North Fork will be Thursday, Feb. 25 during the regular school board meeting. The meeting will be held at Delta Family Center’s auditorium starting at 6:00 p.m.

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