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Denver board’s inaction on school closures cheered, jeered

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

The Denver school board’s decision not to close schools next year sends Superintendent Alex Marrero back to the drawing board. He says school closures are still on the table.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

To some, the Denver school board’s decision not to close any schools next year is a victory for the students, parents, and teachers who pleaded to save their schools and a rebuke of a process they said was top-down and rushed.

“The ‘no’ vote demonstrated the will of the community,” said Milo Marquez, a Denver Public Schools parent and co-chair of the Latino Education Coalition.

To others, the board’s action — or rather, inaction — is bad for students who will now remain in under-enrolled schools and amounts to kicking the can down the road.

“By not taking any action, I think they’ve put off the inevitable,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, a former board member and co-chair of EDUCATE Denver. 

Either way, the decision marks the next stage of the journey rather than the end of a road that has been full of starts and stops and twists and turns. 

First, a prior board acknowledged that declining enrollment is a problem and tasked the superintendent with consolidating small schools. The district released a list of 19 schools, but community groups reacted with concern and Superintendent Alex Marrero scrapped it.

Switching tactics, he formed a community committee to come up with criteria for which schools to close. He applied that criteria — schools with 215 students or fewer — last month and released a new list of 10 schools to close. After pushback, he narrowed his recommendation last week to five. He narrowed it again Thursday to two.

But the school board said no. In a 6-1 vote Thursday, they rejected Marrero’s whittled-down recommendation. They also revoked the prior board’s directive, sending Marrero back to the drawing board on addressing declining enrollment, which they all agree is a problem.

The superintendent said hard decisions are coming

In an interview Friday, Marrero said the ‘no’ vote doesn’t make the problem go away. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and he said some will still be too small to afford robust programming. The district will have to keep subsidizing them, which will eat at its budget. On Thursday, Marrero said the district is facing a $23.5 million deficit for next year.

“Will we go bankrupt next year? No,” Marrero said in Friday’s interview. “But anybody who has their eye on the prize is going to say, ‘That did not make financial sense.’ It doesn’t make educational sense, either.”

Marrero said as far as he is concerned, there are still 10 schools on a list. And it’s likely that he’ll soon come back to the board with a recommendation to close the two smallest of those schools — 115-student Math and Science Leadership Academy and 93-student Denver Discovery School — because they won’t have the budget to operate anymore.

“The reality is, at several points in the near future, we’re all going to have to make unpopular decisions,” Marrero said. “Voting no is easy to do. It’s a very popular thing to do. 

“But sometimes we have to make decisions that are unpopular, misunderstood, or taken out of context in certain cases, and that comes with the territory.”

Marrero rejected an accusation made by at least one board member that he whittled down his recommendations in order to get a majority of the board to agree, though he said he assumed closing fewer schools “would be an easier thing to digest.”

“Under all likelihood, if it passed, I would have said, ‘We got two. Here come the next three.’”

Board and community criticize the process

In voting no, several board members criticized the process the superintendent used to arrive at his recommendations while at the same time praising him as the right person for the job. 

Community members also criticized the process, saying the district did a poor job explaining to families the financial and educational reasons for the proposed closures.

“It doesn’t appear as if they understand what the problem is and why they’re doing this in the first place,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at Keystone Policy Center.

In contrast, neighboring Jeffco Public Schools shared extensive information about each of its under-enrolled schools over the summer, then released a recommended closure list in August. Board members voted unanimously last week to close 16 elementary schools, overriding the pleas of some parents and teachers. 

In Aurora, where the district has engaged in a multiyear process to close schools in regions with declining enrollment while planning for growth in other areas, the school board did vote down two recommended closures, only to approve them a few months later. Superintendent Rico Munn simply returned with the same recommendation, saying nothing had changed.

The Denver board’s main complaint was that the closure recommendations came from Marrero and not from the community. Marrero disagreed; he said community members from across Denver came up with the closure criteria. But board members said parents and teachers from the 10 under-enrolled schools should have been the ones brainstorming solutions.

“Today we have shown through our values that we don’t close schools without community leading us through this process,” Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said after Thursday’s vote. 

Board pledges to give more direction

Several members said the board shares part of the blame. Scott Baldermann said he and others should have given clearer direction to Marrero on how to apply the school closure criteria — and, more broadly, on how to address declining enrollment — by adopting what the board calls “executive limitations,” which are policies that tell Marrero what is off limits.

In doing that, Baldermann said, “we can determine the following: Do we need to consolidate schools at all? Is the community content with smaller enrollment and fewer resources? I don’t believe the answer is yes. But we need to ask.”

Aside from closing schools, Baldermann floated other ways to address under-enrolled schools, including adjusting school boundaries and no longer funding schools per student.

A woman with shoulder-length dark wavy hair and cat-eye glasses raises her hand in a cautionary way. Her face looks concerned.

Denver Board President Xóchitl Gaytán stops Vice President Auon’tai M. Anderson from continuing with his comments during a tense moment of debate Thursday.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

Board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said the district’s embrace of school choice, which allows students to apply to attend any school in Denver, has hurt district-run schools that lose students to independent charter schools with bigger marketing budgets.

“We all, as a board, need to look at, in terms of policy, how to protect our families and our students that are in these public elementary schools,” she said Thursday.

The ‘no’ vote creates uncertainty

Now that they’ve rejected Marrero’s recommendation, board members need to take the lead on what happens next, community members said.

“The board is going to have to, fairly quickly, set up a framework by which they’re going to ask the administration to act,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody is looking at DPS with concern right now.”

The next steps for the board, Gaytán said in an interview Friday, are to pass new executive limitations on declining enrollment and decide whether to pull money from the district’s budget reserves to fund the 10 under-enrolled schools for now.

“Right now, we’ve got this BAND-AID and the wound is bleeding,” Gaytán said. “We need to rip the BAND-AID off and get the surgeon to put in stitches to start the healing.”

Regardless of whether community members agree with the board’s ‘no’ vote or not, they said it has created uncertainty — not just for the 10 small schools that have been threatened with closure, but for every school in the district that could one day be in that position.

“You go from 10 schools being uncertain to now every school in DPS has to wonder how the superintendent and board is going to move forward on this and if it’s going to affect them,” said Clarence Burton, Jr., the CEO of Denver Families for Public Schools. 

“That uncertainty is now spread throughout the district.”

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

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