Our view: Safe schools start with community outreach

We don’t write a lot of editorials, preferring to leave available space in the print edition to the opinions provided by our readers.

But we do feel compelled to give some background and insight from our Feb. 2014 stories on school safety. Three stories asked a basic question: Are our schools safe?
The stories illustrated how difficult it is for parents to find accurate information about crimes committed in and near schools, and when we did find serious incidents involving kids in schools, the information wasn’t released by law enforcement agencies.

Reader response to our question of whether Poudre School District schools are safe was tepid. A handful of anonymous responses by email, story comments and phone ranged from praise to some new information for follow-up to criticism about why we couldn’t figure out the discrepancies in the address for Fort Collins High School. (Fort Collins Police Services lists Fort Collins High School as being at 3400 S. Timberline Road while Poudre School District lists it as 3400 Lambkin Way. But that was exactly the point of our exercise — that you shouldn’t need a secret handshake to get information on crime happening at your neighborhood high school.)

There were no challenges of the facts of the story. Interestingly, we got more feedback on our incorrect identification of the hawk in the front page picture (it’s a Rough-legged hawk, not a Cooper’s hawk) than we did on our school investigation piece.

We did have a heavy heart in reporting about frequent law enforcement visits to two excellent schools in LaPorte — schools filled with exceptional administrators, teachers and staff. They work hard and we, like the community, appreciate what they do. And we do our darndest to tell you their stories (we can show you 20 years worth of stories), thanks to tips from ever-vigilant teachers and parents.

Our readership area includes roughly Country Club Road in Fort Collins north to the Wyoming border. Since we saturate that area via direct mail, we cover most of the schools plus Poudre High School in Fort Collins, which most high school students in our readership area attend.

We have both a personal and editorial interest in how our tax dollars are spent in our schools. We say personal, because North Forty News divvies up $550 in taxes for the school district every year and $229 to Larimer County for taxes levied on about $30,000 in office equipment. (About the same tax paid by a homeowner with a $150,000 home.) If we owned the office we currently rent, our annual tax bill would be about $1,500 more.

Since businesses like ours bear a disproportionate burden of funding schools and local government (compared to homeowners), we’re not shy about assigning grades to governmental agencies and the Fort Collins-centric Poudre School District. With that …drumroll please… Poudre School District would get a D, while Larimer County would get an A+.

The ideal template for how a public agency should be run, including important community outreach initiatives, can be found in Larimer County’s elected commissioners and appointed departmental managers. We’ve had the pleasure of dealing with a superlative collection of county employees, public information officers, high-level administrators and the Board of County Commissioners. When we call, everyone at every level responds. If they don’t know the answer, the person that does know calls back within 20 minutes.

With the exception of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office effort to keep school-related incident reports involving juveniles a secret, we have found Larimer County government to be remarkably transparent and responsive. And not because we have any special status or inside access. It’s because the county recognizes the importance of serving its Northern Larimer County constituents.

County Commissioners host dozens of community outreach events during the year. Almost every small and large county-sponsored public gathering we attended had a similar outcome: Taxpayers expressed an overwhelming desire for the county to tell them more about the county’s services, challenges and financial status.

One of the results of that constituent feedback is the Larimer County color informational insert that can be found in this month’s North Forty News. Every household that receives the North Forty News by mail (14,000+) received the brochure. The insert wasn’t put in the remaining 7,000 newspapers distributed to newsstands because we don’t offer that option.

As for Poudre School District, there’s more reporting to be done by the North Forty News on the topic of school safety, including this month’s story on the school district’s efforts at much-needed mental health outreach. In coming months we’ll focus on school resource officers and statewide trends in school discipline and expulsions — whether our school district participates with us or not.

To be certain, there’s a lot to be said about the good job our schools do in turning out exceptional, educated students. But there’s also a lot to be said about the processes that aren’t always reflected in progress reports, assessment tests or graduation rates.

There’s a need for focus on keeping the school district accountable to the community at large when, for instance, the school superintendent and school board hide behind a one-paragraph press release after the board terminated the employment of former Human Resources Director Chuck DeWayne, who was using his position in the school district to promote a multilevel marketing project.

In the meantime, we’ve prepared our report card for Poudre School District’s performance in our readership area:

• Quantity and verbosity of press releases from Poudre School District board members when they run for their elected seat: A+
• School board outreach to communities surrounding our schools, particularly in Northern Larimer County: F
• School and district outreach to parents with kids in school: A+
• School and district outreach to communities surrounding the schools: D-
• School and district outreach when money is needed for a bond issue: A+
• School and district press release productivity when there’s good news: A+
• School and district press release productivity when the news is not so good: D-
• Parents’ and school parent organization outreach to surrounding communities: A
• Teacher outreach to surrounding communities: A
• School principals’ outreach in the community: C-
• District administrators and the superintendent’s outreach in the community: F
• Poudre School District’s PR department responsiveness before the Feb. 2014 edition of the North Forty News: C-
• Poudre School District’s PR department responsiveness after the Feb. 2014 edition of the North Forty News: F

Sorry, Poudre School District, but we’re gonna have to hold you back a year.

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