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Not In My Backyard: The Truth About the Fight for a Deaf School’s Future

Not In My Backyard: The Truth About the Fight for a Deaf School’s Future

In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, a battle is unfolding that could have implications for the future of deaf education. During a week when much of the Deaf community’s attention was elsewhere, a small charter school went head to head with a local neighborhood group, with the future of hundreds of deaf children at stake.

The Rocky Mountain Deaf School won that clash, but the neighbors aren’t conceding defeat. They’re determined to stand in the way as RMDS struggles to build a new, permanent home in which to pursue its mission of educating underserved children. And these neighbors are going about their opposition in an underhanded manner, distorting the facts and unscrupulously spreading misinformation to frighten people into signing a petition opposing the school. In the meantime, time is running out for RMDS and it stands to lose a $13 million grant if the group’s delaying tactics succeed.

After years of applying, RMDS last June won a grant from the state to build a new facility. The hitch: The school must buy the land by Nov. 7, and their building must be brand new. They cannot renovate an older building.

The school conducted a comprehensive search throughout the Denver area, where vacant land comes at a premium. It finally chose a plot in Lakewood on which to build a brand-new, high-tech, green facility. The school put in a bid for the land, owned by Jefferson County Public Schools, with which RMDS is affiliated as a charter school (but Jefferson County Public Schools does not give it any financial or material support). The land was zoned 40 years ago for an elementary school, and JeffCo Schools applied for a rezoning of the plot to allow for a K-12 school so RMDS could buy and use it. The Lakewood Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the application and sent it to the city council. On June 25, over the strenuous objections of a small group of neighbors that calls itself 2090 Coalition after the plot’s address, council members voted 8-3 to approve the rezoning.

And then the members of 2090 Coalition threw the equivalent of a temper tantrum.

It announced a petition drive to force a vote on the issue. Members have until Aug. 10 to gather 3,000 signatures, and they have begun circulating flyers and going door-to-door pushing for signatures. Some of them have harassed RMDS administrators with rude phone calls and e-mails, says Nancy Bridenbaugh, RMDS’s interim director.

The group has even paid a holistic health practitioner to set up shop in a local public library and gather signatures at a dollar apiece, according to local resident Ginger Walkowich.

Fellow resident Kristen Healy says another signature collector told her he’s also being paid a dollar a signature, doesn’t care about the issue and if she would give him $40, he would quit on the spot.

In the meantime, the rezoning has been suspended.

If the coalition does not get enough signatures, Bridenbaugh says, RMDS will move forward with the purchase and start the design and construction process. But if the petition succeeds, the issue goes back to the city council, which will decide whether to repeal their decision or send the issue to the voters. If the issue goes before voters, it will be as a special election that will cost the city’s taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars, Bridenbaugh says.

This situation is an unwieldy, convoluted labyrinth of issues ranging from the finer points of property law to more narcissistic concerns such as losing mountain views. The relevant portion of the city council’s meeting minutes from June 25 runs a whopping 683 pages. Its contents convey the impression that the members of 2090 Coalition are guilty of, at best, ignorant tunnel vision and, at worst, deliberate, insensitive prejudice and self-centeredness. One of the members even asked the council to bar children from testifying at its meeting, in an effort to suppress their input about their future. In fact, the various arguments thrown out by 2090 Coalition and its supporters offer us a canvas — one Jackson Pollock would be proud of — that shows the scale of ignorance and prejudice that RMDS has to overcome in order to achieve its goals. It also shows the extent of obfuscation the coalition is using to scare residents into signing its petition.

The coalition’s biggest talking point is the question of ownership of the property. Its members want you to think the city actually owns the land and that JeffCo has no right to sell it.

What they don’t want you to know is the land was designated for a school and the developer deeded it directly to JeffCo Schools 35 years ago, bypassing the city altogether. Or that the city has said several times it has no ownership interest, nor does it want any. They definitely don’t want you to know that even if the city originally had any ownership interest, the statute of limitations has run out for it to claim the land, as city attorney Tim Cox reported to the council during its June meeting. Or that the school district and the city have consulted lawyers and gone over the paperwork with a fine-tooth comb and resolved to mutual satisfaction of both parties that the district does own the land.

Amid all this fuss over ownership, the coalition certainly doesn’t want you to look beyond their arguments and consider that regardless of whoever owns the property, a small school for under-served children might be a very worthy use of that land.

What the coalition wants you to think is they’re not opposed to the school. Just to where the school wants to build. They want you to think the land should be appended to the neighboring park, and that the proposed construction is too big and would affect property values, block views of the mountains, overburden local roads with traffic, hurt wildlife, and take away land for neighborhood children to play on.

What they don’t want you to know is six years ago and less than a mile up the street, a middle school was built that is two and a half times the size of RMDS’s proposed design, can accommodate up to 800 students, and sits next to an elementary school that has almost 600 students. Or that the schools back up to a park and have sports fields, volleyball courts, lighted parking lots and playgrounds. Or that the schools block the mountain views. Yet this school received significant support from the neighborhood. But the coalition doesn’t want you to realize it is practicing revisionist history.

They don’t want you to do the math and realize that RMDS’s current enrollment of K-8 students combined would barely fill one class at the middle school. Or that the new building would accommodate just 100 students. According to the coalition, that is just too big.

What they also won’t tell you is Bridenbaugh told the council RMDS would open up its future playground to the neighborhood. Or that the little piece of land RMDS wants sits next to a 27-acre park and is a few blocks from a 2,600-acre park. That just isn’t enough land for the neighborhood’s children to play on.

As for the traffic, what the coalition doesn’t want you to know is only one house in the whole neighborhood faces the property, and that the feeder street was designed to handle 7,000 trips and currently carries less than a tenth of that. Or that RMDS’s new school would add just 250 trips, according to a traffic analysis by a transportation engineering company that was presented at the council meeting. Never mind that street signs would go up cautioning drivers to slow down for deaf children, making the neighborhood streets safer for all. Rather, the coalition would like you to think the street will end up as gridlocked as Los Angeles’ freeways in rush hour, and it would be too dangerous because the poor deaf kids would get mowed down by drivers. When they’re not getting bit by rattlesnakes, that is.

It would like you to think hordes of wildlife would be tragically deprived of a home if the 10-acre bit of land gets developed. They won’t tell you that the state’s department of wildlife had no issues with JeffCo Schools’ application for rezoning, saying the animals don’t even rely on that land, as city planning manager Evelyn Baker told the council. The animals barely even use that corner of the open space, because they prefer the trees and the shelter of the ravines in the adjacent park so they don’t get thwacked by golf balls from the private, 18-hole golf course across the street.

They want people to believe, as one of them told councilors during the meeting, that because of cochlear implants, the deaf student population will dwindle to the point of nonexistence and the neighborhood will get stuck with “a vacant and blighted property” that can’t be used for anything else. What they won’t tell you is implants don’t always work for all deaf children. Children with certain types or degrees of deafness are not generally candidates for implantation, but still often need special services. And even if the implant functions mechanically, some children just don’t thrive with them, and the implants don’t offer full accessibility in a noisy, busy classroom setting. They don’t want you to think about the fact that those are the students who need RMDS and will for decades to come. They certainly won’t admit to you that there are alternative uses if RMDS should outgrow the building or close. Certainly a small, LEED-certified facility in a peaceful, quiet neighborhood would never be an ideal place for a daycare, private preschool or kindergarten, or a community center.

Coalition members will argue to death their belief that building this particular school in this particular place does not comply with the city’s ordinance that any “proposed rezoning promotes the health, safety or welfare of the inhabitants of the City.”

What they don’t want you to know is that RMDS students are sitting at old desks next to a strip mall and across the street from a chicken wings joint, a China Garden and a beer and wine bar. Or that the roof leaks, the wiring recently sparked a small fire, and recess involves a small jungle gym in a postage stamp-sized yard. And that it’s RMDS’s third home in 14 years.

They will tell you that RMDS’s students will be at risk in this quiet, secluded neighborhood with sex offenders hiding behind practically every bush, waiting to pounce. What they won’t tell you is the city of Golden, RMDS’s current location, has a comparatively higher number of sex offenders.

They don’t want you to know that right behind RMDS lives a man convicted of sex crimes against children. One man convicted of sexually assaulting an at-risk juvenile, lives less than 1,000 feet away and can see the children playing every day. Or that just 700 feet north of that man is another one convicted of sexually assaulting a child. They also won’t tell you a web search for sex offenders living in the same zip code as RMDS turns up more than a hundred registered offenders. The same search for the zip code encompassing 2090 S. Wright Street turns up just 21, none of whom live within a two-mile radius of where RMDS wants to build. The nearby public schools would offer the new school the legally mandated cushion it does not have in its current home.

They want you to think the school won’t serve Lakewood residents. They won’t tell you that some RMDS students live in Lakewood and another family plans to move to be near the new school, based on public comments at the council meeting. Or that others live in the neighboring suburbs of Arvada and Westminster, within JeffCo Schools district boundaries. The coalition doesn’t want you to connect the dots that these students are fellow Lakewood residents whose health, safety and welfare are directly threatened when they have to learn in a crumbling strip-mall space across the street from a bar and across another street from a sex offender. According to them, those children certainly don’t deserve a nice, new school in a nice, quiet neighborhood near nice, spacious parks. A more appropriate location for those kids, the coalition has suggested, is next to a jail, according to a list of 80 prospective sites the coalition submitted to RMDS for consideration.

What all those objections translate to is: “We know better than the experts. We want this land all to ourselves, and we don’t want to share it with deaf children.”

This fight should matter a great deal to the national Deaf community because it is the latest episode in the long battle for participation in our education and the future of Deaf children. This dispute between RMDS and 2090 Coalition is a litmus test for what we face when we decide to take deaf education into our own hands and reduce the community’s dependence on state-funded, state-run educational institutions. The Rocky Mountain Deaf School was set up by deaf people, for deaf children, and is run by deaf staff, using the most recent, innovative educational strategies in deaf education. It gives parents of deaf students a viable alternate option to public schools and the state school for the deaf, and it offers those students services they cannot get elsewhere, especially in public school classrooms.

There is still time to act, and a foundation of support in the community. The holistic health practitioner hired by 2090 Coalition has said he’s only gathered 500 signatures so far, and 95 percent of people he’s talked to have “ripped him a new one” and said they would vote against the coalition, according to Walkowich, a neighbor who supports RMDS.

The school’s supporters are working to show Lakewood residents that the coalition does not speak for the whole neighborhood. As Walkowich says, the coalition members simply “do not like people who are different. … They are cowering and hiding behind who owns the land or not. They are bringing a bad name to this area.”

Many neighbors “are actually quite proud that such a fine school will become a part of our neighborhood, and beg forgiveness of the families at RMDS for the ignorance, selfishness and incivility that some (neighbors) have displayed in not properly welcoming them here,” neighborhood resident Rick Grenolds wrote in an open letter to the coalition, posted as a comment here.

And that is why the Deaf community needs to rally around RMDS and work with local supporters to educate the residents of Lakewood about why this school will be a positive addition to their city. The supporters have set up a Facebook page and a website  and are trying to gather enough people to find the petition circulators and demonstrate nearby with factsheets and posters urging people to learn all the facts before signing. They badly need people to help with that. Like the page, and hit the streets.

The group needs help with fleshing out its website, and someone should also set up a donation drive for a legal fund for RMDS if the coalition carries out its threat to sue and tie up the matter in courts until RMDS loses its grant money. The website also should contain information for those who say they wish they hadn’t signed the petition, explaining that they can write a letter to the city clerk withdrawing their signature.

Most importantly, the Deaf community needs to join with the school’s supporters to urge Lakewood voters to support ALL of their city’s children, not just the ones without any disabilities who live in privileged, predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods.

Because each and every child matters. But 2090 Coalition doesn’t want you to think that.

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