year in review

Changing city, changing suburbs: A look back at important demographic shifts in our schools

What has become a familiar view in Denver (Denver Post file).

All around us, Denver is changing.

Construction cranes tower not just over downtown but residential neighborhoods, like super-sized erector sets. Low-slung buildings along Welton and Tejon have been reduced to rubble, leaving holes in the ground soon to be filled by condos or apartments or another hip restaurant.

The city’s breakneck growth is remaking the face of not just Denver but the metro area and beyond — and in the process, profoundly changing the region’s public schools.

In a presentation to the school board, Denver Public Schools’ planning office laid out how rising housing prices are pushing lower-income families out of the city — leading to a slowdown in what had been a fast-growing student population. New construction is booming but much of it is aimed at millennials, most of whom don’t have school-aged kids, the district explained.

This story features five graphs that illustrate the shift — including a look at five-year trends showing the decline in minority students and students living in poverty, as well as troubling disparities that suggest a growing haves and have-nots problem in the state’s biggest district.

A couple of elementary schools in working-class north Denver did get a modest hand up to counter the effects of gentrification. Using grant money, Swansea Elementary is spending on a school psychologist while Garden Place Academy is investing in hiring a new family liaison.

Not all parts of the city are seeing fewer students, however. In response to growth, DPS is planning to use bond money to build new schools in Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch. One of those projects, adding a DSST charter school on the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver anchored by Northfield High School, stirred up all sorts of controversy this month.

East of Denver, Aurora has long been a more affordable destination for families. But that, too, is changing as gentrification spreads to Colorado’s third largest city. Look no further than the development around the Anschutz medical campus, or the artisan bread sold at Stanley Marketplace.

The changes, coming so fast, caught Aurora Public School officials off guard. Facing its largest enrollment decline in decades, the district was forced to slash $3 million from its budget. Tellingly, the declines were most pronounced in lower-income schools, costing the district both state per-pupil funding and less money earmarked to serve students living in poverty.

'very difficult choices'

Five Jeffco Public Schools recommended for closure under budget-cutting plan

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaking to reporters last month (photo by Eric Gorski).

The Jefferson County school district is proposing closing five schools in a cost-cutting move to meet a school board directive to better pay teachers and staff, Superintendent Dan McMinimee told reporters Thursday.

McMinimee’s comments came hours before a board meeting where the names of the schools will be publicly announced.

Given enrollment trends in Jeffco, it’s likely that the schools slated for closure will include some along the district’s eastern border with Denver. Those schools, which serve large populations of students living in poverty, have been the focus of recent district and community efforts to boost academic achievement.

“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”

The proposed closures are part of an effort to save between $20 million and $25 million, with the goal of spending that amount on attracting and retaining high-quality educators. Jeffco teachers on average are paid about $10,000 to $15,000 a year less than their peers in other metro area districts, McMinimee said, making it difficult to meet the district’s goal of ensuring every classroom has exceptional educators.

The school board decided to make spending on compensation a priority in November, after voters rejected a bond request for capital improvements and a tax increase that would have helped boost teacher salaries.

The 86,000-student district also anticipates a drop in enrollment, which will mean less money from the state. A change in property tax assessments also could cost Jeffco an estimated $10 million in state revenue, McMinimee noted.

The board will not be making any decisions Thursday. School principals were notified earlier in the day that their schools are being recommended for closure, McMinimee said. He called the closure recommendations “very difficult choices.”

The district identified the schools after considering nine or 10 criteria, among them enrollment trends and the condition of the buildings, he said. According to data provided by the district, enrollment is declining in the Edgewater, Jefferson and Alameda areas along Denver’s western boundary. Some Arvada schools also have many empty seats.

Fewer than 120 teachers and staff will be impacted by the closures, and McMinimee said he expects most will be offered other positions in the district. Between 300 and 500 positions come open per year, either because of one-year contracts elapsing or people moving on, he said.

As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings, many of which are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking away earnings from that.

All five Jeffco school board members won election in 2015 after a bitter recall campaign that saw the ousting of three conservative board members who hired McMinimee for the superintendent’s job. The recall had strong backing from the teachers union; the union also supported the candidates who swept to power and now hold all five seats.

This month, the school board voted to begin a search for a new superintendent while McMinimee still has six months remaining on his contract.

Chalkbeat’s Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report. 

Tough options

Aurora schools weighing a long list of possible budget cuts for next year

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn in 2013 (Denver Post file)

Eliminating full-day kindergarten, adding furlough days and cutting middle school sports are among the steps Aurora Public Schools is considering to shrink next year’s budget as the district copes with an array of financial challenges.

The three scenarios are part of a long list of possible moves district officials are considering to slash the 2017-18 budget, which needs to be about $31 million less than the current year’s budget.

The district cut $3 million from central administration in the middle of this school year after an unanticipated enrollment decline, its largest in decades.

More expected declines in enrollment and other factors are causing district officials to seek community input on what to prioritize as it faces tough decisions about next year’s budget.

Like districts across the state, Aurora is also expecting state funding will again fall short of the amount that a state formula calculates it should get. Cuts could be even greater next year because a state constitutional amendment may drop residential property taxes, meaning districts would lose some local revenue.

The Aurora district has held back big cuts to the classroom in recent years by spending money from the district’s reserves — a rainy-day fund of unallocated savings — but now the district wants to start building up that account again instead of draining it.

“It’s a challenging mix of contributing factors,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.

At an open house Saturday about the district’s budget conundrum, one person asked Munn why the district hadn’t asked voters for a tax increase from a mill levy override in November at the same time as a $300 million bond request — which voters approved — in anticipation of the cuts.

Munn said asking for both may have doomed the requests but said the district is considering asking voters for such a tax increase next year. Anticipating a longer trend of shrinking enrollment, he said the budget still needs to shrink.

A tax increase is not meant to address a drop in students, Munn said.

“It’s not appropriate for us to say we have fewer students but we want more money,” he said.

The district already has come up with one set of proposed cuts that would account for $21.8 million of the $31 million the district aims to cut. Those steps include renegotiating employee health benefits, eliminating late-start Wednesdays at some schools and charging more overhead costs to state funds that help districts for things like preschool.

The district is asking for community feedback on other possible cuts to find the rest of the savings. Officials are sharing a list of 41 ideas for cutting the budget and created four scenarios including one that just reduces school staffing. People also have the option to draw their own budget from the list.

Some of the ideas include shifting to a four-day week for a savings of $450,000; eliminating three swimming pools at high schools for a savings of $500,000; and postponing or canceling the adoption of new curriculum materials for a savings of $2.4 million.

Looking through the list, Marisa Sanchez, a mother of two boys in the district, worried that many choices would have too much of an impact on students.

“Wanting to remove staff from schools shouldn’t be an option,” Sanchez said. “They’re there because they are necessary. I’m a volunteer at my son’s school and I see it.”

Donna Godfrey said she is fine with the district getting rid of swimming pools but also doesn’t want to see less staff in schools. She said she worried about classrooms filled with students that need more support like those learning English or who are new to the country.

“Adding just three more students to that class, it’s a bad thing,” Godfrey said.

Sanchez also worried that shifting the enrollment process to the schools instead of at the district-level, an idea that would save $443,085, “would be chaos.”

Munn said he hasn’t processed the feedback that the district has received so far, but said it will all be considered.

“What I’m happy about is that people can actually digest these options and think about some of the tough choices we have to make,” Munn said.

The district will have one more open house at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vista PEAK Exploratory School, 24551 E. 1st Ave. Online, the district will continue to take feedback through Feb. 3.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that more drastic budget cuts could be expected next year because of a change in personal property taxes.