Denver schools’ $1.2 billion budget will be buoyed by federal COVID relief funds next year

A masked student wearing an orange top and two other masked students watch a video on class. On the wall is a print of a circular orange pattern on a purple background; in the foreground is an open laptop.
Students at Denver’s Northfield High School watch a video in class in April while some of their classmates watch from home. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Federal coronavirus stimulus dollars will buoy the Denver school district’s $1.2 billion budget next school year in the face of declining enrollment and rising salaries, according to a proposed budget presented to the school board Thursday.

Denver Public Schools will avoid the kind of deep spending cuts it made this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to federal relief money and new local tax revenue approved by Denver voters, district-run schools are set to receive an extra $23 million next school year that principals can choose to spend on expenses such as hiring more nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, tutors, and academic intervention teachers.

District officials said the 2021-22 budget is focused on creating a good environment for students to return to school. After a year in which Denver students switched back and forth from remote to in-person learning as coronavirus cases spiked and fell, the state’s largest district is planning to offer full in-person learning in the fall. It will also offer a centralized remote schooling option for families who want their children to continue to learn virtually.

The centralized program will be funded by federal relief money, district staff said. Relief packages passed by Congress in December and March will direct an extra $209.5 million to the district over the next three years. Denver will also spend that money on improving school air quality, accelerating learning for students who missed instruction or fell behind academically during the pandemic, and paying for special education services that students didn’t receive when school buildings were closed, among other expenses.

Without the federal relief money, declining enrollment and escalating salaries would have resulted in a $24.2 million deficit next school year, according to the presentation. With the federal funds, Denver is projecting a $4.2 million deficit instead. The relief money can only be spent on certain things, which is why it won’t erase the district’s deficit completely. 

Chief Financial Officer Chuck Carpenter called this strategy — using federal relief money to buoy the budget — “right and appropriate.” But he warned that it’s one-time funding. He presented a plan to wean the district off the federal money over the next three years.

With the district’s expenses outpacing its revenues, “the stimulus gives us a special opportunity to take this problem and solve it over several years,” Carpenter said.

Declining enrollment is driving much of the district’s revenue problem. Colorado school districts are funded per student. Denver Public Schools’ enrollment was flat before the pandemic, and it lost 3.3% of its students this year. Many of those students were in preschool and kindergarten — a trend that could continue next year if early indicators prove correct.

And it could have long-term effects, Carpenter said: “When we see kindergarten classes that are small, that is a 10-year impact because that small cohort will go through the system.” 

Rising salaries are also putting pressure on the budget. Teacher salaries are the biggest-ticket item in the district’s budget, and they’ve gone up substantially in recent years. The median teacher salary rose nearly 25% from $55,029 in 2018-19 to an estimated $68,595 next year. The increase is the result of a new contract negotiated after a strike in 2019, which Carpenter noted has led to higher teacher retention rates across the district.

The Denver school board is set to vote on the 2021-22 budget next month.

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