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Denver board votes down school closures, restarts declining enrollment conversation

A man holds his head in dismay during a meeting.

Denver board members Scott Esserman, left, and Charmaine Lindsay react after Superintendent Alex Marrero recommends closing only two schools.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools will not close any schools next spring, after the board rejected a last-minute recommendation from Superintendent Alex Marrero to shutter two small schools.

At the Thursday meeting, Marrero apparently surprised even some board members by dropping three other schools that he had recommended be closed. 

The Denver school board had been set to vote on the closure of five small schools that receive budget subsidies. Marrero instead recommended closing only the two smallest schools: Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy. 

Board members voted down even that recommendation and revoked a resolution adopted in June 2021 that directed the superintendent to address declining enrollment and that kicked off the process of finding criteria to close schools. 

Board members said the process was rushed and did not involve enough opportunity for families and teachers to weigh in.

“If we vote yes to close the schools in this manner, we are saying we don’t respect you,” board member Michelle Quattlebaum said. “If we vote no to close the schools in this manner, we are saying we respect you enough to have an honest conversation with you and come up with a plan.”

The decision sends Marrero back to the drawing board but doesn’t mean school closures are off the table in the future. Board members said gentrification, declining birth rates, and limited state funding mean the problem isn’t going away.

“I’m not going to paint a pretty picture that no school will ever close from now on,” board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said. “The budget is showing us there are a lot of constraints. And we need to make sure this district will continue to be responsible with the funding.”

The vote against closing Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy was 6-1, with board member Scott Baldermann casting the only yes vote.

Denver Board of Education member Auon’tai Anderson speaks passionately during a board meeting.

Denver Board of Education member Auon’tai M. Anderson, right, said he felt “blindsided” by the new recommendations and the process has not respected families.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

DDS is a middle school with just 93 students this year. MSLA is an elementary school with 115 students. Denver funds its schools per pupil, and schools with fewer students have less money to pay for staff and programming.

But a majority of board members objected to the process the district used to come up with the school closure recommendations because it didn’t directly involve the students, families, and teachers from the affected schools.

Instead, Marrero applied criteria suggested by a community committee that the district should close schools with 215 students or less. Marrero’s first recommendation, which he announced three weeks ago, was to close 10 schools that met the criteria.

Last week, after hearing pushback from parents and board members, Marrero slashed his recommendation in half from 10 schools to five. And on Thursday, he cut it again to two, sparing Fairview Elementary, Schmitt Elementary, and International Academy of Denver at Harrington.

“After listening to feedback from the community, I’m going to shift,” Marrero said.

The last-minute change upset some board members.

“I feel like we’re playing politics with a bunch of kids and their education and I’ve had enough of it,” board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said. “I’m pissed, to be totally frank with you.”

A bald man wearing a dark jacket sits in a chair at a desk in front of a computer.

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero initially recommended the closure of 10 schools, then five schools, then two. Ultimately the board voted not to close any schools.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

Other board members spoke passionately about the need to restart the entire process and include the community from the beginning.

“We’re going to engage in those dialogues and conversations,” Scott Esserman said, “and we’re not going to promise them we’re not going to close their school. 

“But we’re also going to ask them for alternatives.”

Board member Carrie Olson called school closures “the most difficult task that any board or superintendent will undertake” and noted that “they rarely go well.” But she said “we cannot do it without the community.”

On Monday, families and educators packed a public comment session to plead with the board not to close their schools. It was the only opportunity for the community to address the full board before Thursday’s vote. Each person was allotted three minutes to speak, and the session stretched for six hours. Many speakers were from the schools Marrero spared. 

No one from MSLA or DDS spoke on Monday.

Declining enrollment is affecting several metro districts, including Aurora and Jeffco. A week ago, the Jeffco school board unanimously voted to close 16 small elementary schools.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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