New schools that want to open in Denver will now have an expiration date

A resolution quietly adopted by the Denver school board limits the scope of expansion of several charter school networks, and assigns a deadline to any new school that wants to open.

New schools must now begin planning to open in earnest within three years of being approved, according to a resolution the board passed unanimously without discussion last week. Until now, approved schools could sit on the district’s proverbial “shelf” forever.

The three-year deadline applies to all types of schools, including traditional schools run by the district, district-run schools with “innovation status,” and privately run charter schools.

Before this resolution, there were 29 schools that had been approved by the board but did not have immediate plans to open. Most of them were charter schools belonging to homegrown networks that, as part of the resolution, agreed to surrender the approvals for some of their unopened schools.

The reason cited in the resolution was declining student population. Rising housing prices are pushing families out of the city. Whereas Denver Public Schools was once among the fastest growing districts in the country, demographers predict enrollment will decrease 5 percent by 2023, from about 92,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade to about 89,000, making it harder for new schools to attract enough students — and per-pupil funding — to be viable.

The district has also run out of empty buildings to house new schools. And although it’s not mentioned in the resolution, the school board has backed away from aggressively closing struggling schools, opting instead to give them more time to improve.

If the board continues that approach, new schools won’t have the option to move into buildings vacated by schools closed for low performance. The board’s future direction largely depends on an election in November, when three of the seven seats are up for grabs. Most of the candidates running thus far oppose school closure and charter school expansion.

School board President Anne Rowe said she doesn’t see this resolution as tied to the district’s strategy on struggling schools. Rather, she said the change is meant to “clean up” existing policy to adhere to best practices that say unopened schools should have an expiration date.

Jennifer Holladay, who oversees new school approvals for the district, agreed.

“New school strategy — that process will continue to be part of the fabric of Denver,” Holladay said. “The issue here is a shared belief that schools that are approved shouldn’t be able to stay ‘live’ if they don’t open within a reasonable period of time.”

The longer a school sits on the shelf, Holladay said, the more likely it is that conditions will change, and “the original community demand for that school may no longer be there.”

DSST is Denver’s largest charter school network with 14 middle and high schools throughout the district. The network had another eight schools on the shelf. According to the resolution, it surrendered the approvals for four of those schools, cutting its expansion potential in half.

Denver’s second-largest charter network, Strive Prep, has 11 elementary, middle, and high schools in the city. It reduced its number of schools on the shelf from five to two.

All other networks that previously had several schools on the shelf also reduced their number to two. That includes the University Prep charter school network and the Beacon innovation school network. The Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network only had two schools on the shelf to begin with, so it did not surrender any approvals.

Holladay emphasized that the district consulted with the networks before making the change, and said the networks agreed to surrender their approved schools. Chalkbeat was unable to immediately confirm that with DSST, Strive Prep, University Prep, or Rocky Mountain Prep.

Alex Magaña, the executive principal of the Beacon network, said he agreed to reduce the number of Beacon schools on the shelf from three to two. The innovation schools in this network are district-run but have more autonomy. Magaña said he understands the pressures of declining enrollment and a lack of available buildings, but said the district’s approach to holding low-performing schools accountable is less clear.

“What is the stance on that?” Magaña said. “How do we move forward?”

The resolution says that all schools on the shelf have until fall 2022 to begin a “year zero” planning year, in which a newly hired principal prepares to launch the school the following fall. If they don’t, the schools’ approval will be revoked and they’ll have to reapply.