Denver school board rejects plan to close schools

Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education on Thursday struck down a proposal to close schools after Superintendent Alex Marrero caught several directors off guard by changing the district’s school closure plan for the second time within a week.

At the start of the meeting, Marrero announced he had once again revised the district’s recommendation by proposing that only two schools — Denver Discovery School and Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy — close next year instead of five.

The three schools removed from the plan were Schmitt Elementary, Fairview Elementary and International Academy of Denver at Harrington.

Most school board directors appeared blindsided by the change, with Vice President Auon’tai Anderson questioning whether the move violated the state’s open-meeting law because it wasn’t noticed on the meeting’s agenda beforehand. He called the change “sneaky.”

“I personally take skepticism to your modification because I’m concerned we are yet again picking winners and losers,” Anderson told the superintendent. “I feel blindsided.”

Marrero said he made the change after hearing from students and parents at a meeting earlier in the week when many people asked the district not to close the five schools. The two schools still on the list share buildings with other schools, he said, adding that Denver Discovery is in a “dire” situation.

“I have not and will never count votes,” Marrero told the board. “I do believe this has been performative and political but definitely not by the superintendent and DPS.”

Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy has 115 students, and Denver Discovery has 93 pupils.

All but one board member — Scott Baldermann — voted against closing both schools, leaving it unclear how the district will tackle its low-enrollment crisis.

Adding to the uncertainty, the school board also unanimously voted to revoke a resolution that directors passed last year instructing the superintendent to develop a plan to review under-enrolled schools and come up with a consolidation plan.

An evolving school closure plan

With fewer children enrolling in school districts across the U.S., Colorado’s largest school district proposed shutting down schools as a way to address the problem, which administrators predict will continue for the foreseeable future.

An earlier plan, announced in late October, would have closed 10 schools if approved by the board. But the rollout of the proposal drew criticism from parents, students and multiple board members for a lack of community engagement and for disproportionately affecting students of color.

DPS cut its plan in half last week, saying that the five schools remaining on the list received the majority of the money the district uses to subsidize the original 10 schools proposed for closure. The schools that remained on the list were also the smallest of the 10.

But that decision also drew pushback, notably from education groups that said the changes were creating further confusion among families, and they questioned why the school board hadn’t stepped in to curb the “chaos.”

The schools removed from the list last week were Columbian Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Colfax Elementary, Whittier K-8 and Eagleton Elementary. DPS hasn’t completely ruled out shuttering these schools, with the superintendent saying last week that they are “still under consideration.”

Then, right before the board voted Thursday, the district changed the plan again.

The prospect of school closures has loomed over DPS for more than a year. The district is facing declining enrollment, which DPS attributes to falling birthrates and rising housing costs that are pushing families from the city.

Since 2014, DPS has lost more than 6,400 elementary students and expects enrollment to fall further in the coming years.

Schools receive less funding when they have fewer children. Small schools have larger class sizes and fewer electives, such as art. Children from different grades also are merged into a single classroom, according to DPS.

“We know we’re struggling to get the resources,” said director Scott Esserman.

But, he told his colleagues on the board, the school closure plan wasn’t the right way to address the problem.

“The problems don’t go away because I vote no today, but we have an opportunity to build trust,” Esserman said.

Last year, the district released a list of 19 schools it was considering closing, but DPS scrapped that list and formed an advisory committee that recommended closures based on certain criteria.

“This issue is not going away”

But at a meeting this month, board directors criticized the district for rushing the vote on the closures before they had enough information on how DPS decided which schools to close under the newer plan.

The district has said it used four sets of criteria when it decided 10 schools should close — including a threshold of fewer than 215 students — under its earlier plan.

Marrero told the board then that the district wanted to move quickly with the closures because administrators worried students and employees would leave the schools if the process was drawn out.

Directors Anderson, Esserman, Charmaine Lindsay and Michelle Quattlebaum were among the most outspoken about the plan and its rollout. Esserman and Anderson said before Thursday’s meeting that they planned to vote against closing the five schools.

Lindsay said she was prepared to vote against the plan before Thursday’s meeting, but the superintendent’s change made her question her decision as the two schools were ones she worried about because they are not viable.

“These two schools are barely making it,” she told the board.

Ultimately, Lindsay joined Anderson, Esserman, Quattlebaum, Carrie Olson and Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán in voting against both school closures.

Gaytán, the board’s president, offered a mea culpa during the meeting, saying “I would like to extend an apology to you all, the community, for being so patient with us as we process this.”

Gaytán also apologized to Marrero, saying that the board should have provided more insight to the district’s staff on what directors were looking for in the school closure plan.

And she did not rule out the possibility that the board will vote on potential school closures again in the future.

“This issue is not going away,” Gaytán said, adding, “If we don’t close schools, we now have to look for money for the schools.”

Olson said that although she was voting against the plan, she still supported Marrero.

“I cannot support it at this time,” Olson told the superintendent. “I still believe you are the leader for this district. I know you have it in you to get this right.”

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