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Melissa Youssef and Jim Griffin: 9-R bond election was more significant than you thought

Amid all the noise and drama of the November presidential election, readers may have missed the full significance of the recent Durango School District 9-R bond vote, also on Nov. 3.

That voters approved a bond raising $90 million to support local public school facility needs is not all that remarkable, given that Durango voters typically show strong support for funding education. This was, however, a historic vote – the culmination of unprecedented levels of collaboration and cooperation among local educational leaders and dedicated community members that will benefit all public schools in Durango, including those run by 9-R – along with local charter schools not tied to the district.

This is the first time that has happened anywhere in Colorado.

Moreover, it is historic in that it signals a progressive shift of perception on the part of Durango voters, who demonstrated their willingness – even eagerness – to embrace diversity in local education, as evidenced by a robust 72% vote in favor of this bond.

How is it that Durango suddenly finds itself a statewide role model? Despite the fact that almost 20 years ago the Colorado Legislature established a process by which school districts could collaborate with local charter schools on bond elections, nondistrict charter schools have never been offered a piece of the pie. Not even a sliver of the pie. Until now. Durango District 9-R is the first district in the state to be willing to share bond and mill levy proceeds with all local charter schools – not just Juniper, Durango’s district-authorized charter school, but also with Mountain Middle School and Animas High School, Durango’s two state-authorized charter schools, which operate independently of 9-R.

For those unfamiliar with charter schools, they are independently operated public schools, open to all students, but especially appropriate for students seeking alternatives to large, mainstream public schools. Some charter school students have learning styles that are best served in smaller, less traditional learning environments. Charter schools must be “authorized” by a school district or a state agency and have been part of Durango’s education landscape since 1994. Statewide, about 260 charter schools serve more than 125,000 students.

Unfortunately, in years past, charter schools were sometimes viewed with suspicion, perceived as harmful to mainstream schools, siphoning off both students and money. As time and experience have shown, the reality is that the presence of diverse educational options strengthens and invigorates communities.

Over the past decade, Durango 9-R leaders, charter school leaders and active community members who are passionate about diversity in education have worked tirelessly to develop a culture of inclusivity. They have overcome obstacles and made great strides in creating public awareness that the presence of charter schools benefits all students in the community as well as the community at large. Diverse educational options encourage healthy competition and make it possible for students to excel in the school environment best suited to their learning styles, resulting in improved classroom performance outcomes not only for charter school students, but also for students who attend district-run schools. Educational choice is now the expected norm in our community.

District 9-R leadership – from Superintendent Dan Snowberger to the 9-R School Board - has set a high but achievable bar for other districts in the state by consistently emphasizing the importance of recognizing that all public school students in Durango deserve the best education possible, whether they attend district-run schools or autonomous charter schools.

Durango has crossed a new threshold in the pursuit of educational excellence. Our community’s commitment to diversity in education, as demonstrated by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic passage of this bond, will not only benefit Durango – it will benefit the entire state, with Durango providing districts statewide with a viable model of cooperation and collaboration in the pursuit of educational excellence.

Melissa Youssef is a former 9-R board member and a current Durango city councilor. Jim Griffin was the founding president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and is president of Momentum Strategy & Research.