Aurora Public Schools is preparing to slash $3 million from its budget in the face of its largest enrollment decline in decades, a sign that the metro area’s skyrocketing housing costs are transforming what has long been an affordable alternative for low-income families.
The number of students who showed up at Aurora schools this fall was less than school district officials had expected, especially in lower-income schools. That hurts on two fronts – it means less state per-pupil funding, and less money earmarked for students in poverty.
Current unofficial student counts put the number of Aurora Public Schools students this fall at 41,926, down from 42,569 in 2015. That would represent the district’s largest enrollment decline in at least 46 years.
“It’s extremely hard to predict housing conditions in Aurora,” Josh Hensley, planning coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, said at a school board meeting this week. “Recent changes have been very abrupt. We went from seeing the largest increases to the largest decline in a matter of a couple of years.”
For decades, Aurora was known as an affordable Denver suburb — a large, diverse city that in places has unrecognizable borders with its neighbors. But housing costs are rising. The website Zillow, which tracks rentals and house sales, estimates Aurora rents have increased 14.3 percent over the past year.
“It appears to have gotten to the point where most modest families can no longer afford to live here,” Hensley said. “We’re becoming less affordable quicker than the metro area.”
Chris Maraschky, executive director of Aurora’s Housing Authority, said that rents in the city are at an all-time high and affordable housing is in high demand, but there’s not enough. The waitlist for Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income families pay rent hasn’t been opened since 2005.
“Aurora is relatively affordable compared to Denver,” Maraschky said. “I know that doesn’t help if someone is making $12 an hour. Compared to where we were four years ago, things are not affordable.”
According to the district’s research, people need to make about $1,077 a month and $43,000 a year to afford Aurora’s median rent with no burden.
Lisa Jones, a 48-year-old who left her children’s father in March, said she is struggling to find housing in Aurora. Although she is trying to keep her kids in their Aurora schools, she doesn’t know how much longer she will.
“I really don’t want to displace my children,” Jones said. “I really, really don’t.”
For now Jones is living with her four children — two school-aged — and three grandchildren at her parents’ house in Aurora. Jones said her son at South Middle School and her daughter at Aurora Central High School are thriving and have been on honor roll and in student council. Her son also plays the violin.
Every day, Jones and her kids look for a new place to rent.
“It is ridiculous,” Jones said. “Before, honestly I could sit down and look and within two weeks I could find something. It’s not there now. It’s so different.”
Aurora Public Schools’ projections of student enrollment were off by 643 students and were most incorrect for the number of young students in elementary schools. That’s significant because as those kids grow up, their grade levels may remain small and continue to have an impact on schools for a longer period of time.
School district staff laid out the potential budget impact at a school board meeting Tuesday. The short-term plan is to make cuts in every department at the district level, to put more building maintenance projects on hold and to keep any money that schools had intended to carry over from their allocated budgets last year.
Board members had a lengthy discussion, urging the superintendent to be selective about which district departments take cuts, and by how much, based on the services they provide to the district, teachers or students.
“When you take a flat cut, it doesn’t play to how we approach equity in this district,” said board president Amber Drevon.
A small portion of the enrollment decline in Aurora schools could also be due to families sending their kids out of the district to other schools — mostly in Denver.
Last year, the number of Aurora students opting out of the district rose to more than 4,800, up from around 3,400 each of the previous four years. The state has not posted the current year’s numbers.
Staff told the board that tax revenues they thought they would get from the city also haven’t reached expectations.
Despite the cuts, the Aurora school board on Tuesday approved on first reading a new contract for teachers that includes a 1.2 percent salary increase starting in January and a promise that the district will pick up the increases in health insurance costs and pension payments.
The district will revisit teacher raises if voters in November approve a $300 million bond increase.
The district introduced the ballot measure in August, citing a need for a new school to relieve overcrowding in northwest Aurora and maintenance repairs at several schools. If passed, the bond measure would also add classrooms at some schools, including Aurora Central High School and Rangeview High School.
The recent enrollment drops don’t change those needs, officials say.
“From a capacity standpoint, it does not provide us any significant relief as a district,” Hensley said.
That’s because school breakdowns of enrollment show an almost east-west divide in the city. Most schools in the western part of Aurora that border Denver, including Lowry and other neighborhoods, are losing kids. A charter school, the Lotus School for Excellence, is an exception.
The following map illustrates the divide. Click on a pin to identify schools and learn about their enrollment trends:
Farther east, near the neighborhoods of Buckley Air Force Base, schools such as Hinkley High School and Vista Peak continue to grow.
Looking to the coming years, officials are now expecting more budget cuts — and in the next round, schools and teachers would not be shielded from the impact.
Enrollment eventually will stabilize and may grow again, officials predict, but the city could look different by then.
“Aurora has lots of developable land,” Hensley said. “There are several hundred homes being completed,” many of them with more expensive price tags than what has been the norm in Aurora.