A high school for Wellington? Er, maybe

At 7:30 a.m. on a crisp, frosty November 4 Election Day, Sandra Smyser, superintendent of schools for Poudre School District, spoke to a group gathered during the Wellington Area Chamber of Commerce Round Table meeting at the First National Bank in Wellington.

Addressing the topic, What does PSD see in growth for Wellington schools?, Smyser assured more than 30 attendees that “Wellington is on our radar.”

Along with Pete Hall, executive director of operations for PSD whose duties include design and construction of new schools, Smyser described the complicated business of accommodating growth in the short term, for the interim and for the long-term.

It’s no simple matter. Issues around boundaries, classroom size, the district’s “school of choice” policy and indications of future population growth must be taken into consideration.

Smyser said that school district planners look at predicted birth rates and the likelihood of neighborhoods flipping from older to younger residents, sometimes causing surprises in school enrollment. It takes at least two years from inception to completion for a new school building, making anticipation of growth and careful planning essential. “It’s not a hard science,” Smyser emphasized.

“It’s kind of like looking 10 years ahead into a crystal ball,” Hall noted.

Demographic studies show that the fastest growth in the area is occurring along the I-25 corridor, and that growth is faster in the south area of school district boundaries rather than in the north.

In an effort to provide as much information as possible to a deeply interested group of listeners, Hall and Smyser described the plots of land owned by the school district and the pros and cons of considering each of them for new construction. Other options to accommodate growth include shifting around classroom space, bringing in modular buildings, and, when there is space available, adding wings onto existing schools. Smyser noted that there’s a limit to increasing the size of elementary schools. “We probably don’t want to see an elementary school with 800 students,” she said.

After Smyser and Hall finished their presentation, area resident Curtis Bridges suggested the possibility of building a “magnet” high school in Wellington geared to training students in specific vocational skills. Smyser pointed out that such a school would need to include the basics (math, history, English, science) so that students could graduate with a high school diploma.

Bridges suggested that extras such as a band and soccer fields would not be necessary, meaning that such a school could be built on less land than that required for a traditional high school. He emphasized the great need for a whole range of vocational studies, pointing out that electricians make $75 an hour and are hard to find. He pointed to Warren Technical School in Jefferson County as an example of what he has in mind.

Smyser agreed “95 percent” with Bridges, warning that locking kids into a career decision too early can be a problem. She shared a listing of the current career technical classes offered in the district and the district’s partnership with Front Range Community College that allows students to take concurrent classes that give them college credit. “It’s possible for a student to graduate from high school with a full year of college credit,” she said.

Wellington residents did not hesitate to express their feelings.

“I think we’d be better off to compare a possible high school in Wellington to the high school in Ault, rather than to a to a large school like Poudre,” town trustee Ashley Macdonald said. “I want my kids to go to a small high school.”

Trustee Matt Michel disputed estimates of how many students would enroll in a Wellington high school, pointing out that fewer families would leave town when their children became high school age, meaning that younger siblings would swell the ranks of elementary and middle schools beyond current PSD estimates.

Chamber chair Walter Lamia said,“Regional school districts come from a different point of view than smaller districts.” Lamia said he’s interested in creating community — a stand-alone high school on say, the Mountain Vista Road site, would be an isolated structure and would not promote community.

An hour passed quickly, but no one seemed ready to leave. Parent and community member Linda Knaack spoke up indicating her feeling that Wellington has been overlooked by PSD. “I’m a little passionate about this,” she said.

Mayor pro tem Tim Singewald asked Smyser what two or three things could be done in the coming months to convince PSD of the need for a local high school.

Smyser replied that she felt it was up to PSD to take into consideration the concerns that had been expressed. She indicated her willingness to meet again in a few months to continue the complicated process of figuring out the best way to accommodate growth while keeping in mind the concerns of the Wellington community.

Wendell Nelson, retired CSU faculty and former Wellington business owner, provided a long-term view for everyone to think about. “If you calculate growth into the future, Wellington is likely to be 10-12,000 in population in five years, and up to 25,000 in 25 years. Growth will be centralized.”

Matt Michel said, “As the town grows, you will be competing for land.”

As the meeting closed, architect and planner Chuck Mayhugh was enthusiastic about the session. “This is one of the best community meetings we’ve ever had in Wellington,” he said.

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