Denver school board discusses revisions to proposed school closure policy

The proposed policy, known officially as Executive Limitation 18, is meant to address declining enrollment in Denver Public Schools. (Jimena Peck for Chalkbeat)

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Concerns about how future school closures would impact communities of color and questions about how to repurpose empty school buildings prompted Denver school board members to suggest revisions to a proposed school closure policy Monday.

The board is expected to vote on the policy later this month.

The proposal, known officially as Executive Limitation 18, is meant to address declining enrollment in Denver Public Schools. Enrollment in DPS has been falling since 2019, and despite a recent influx of migrant students, the district is predicting another 8% drop by 2028. The proposed policy says closures and consolidations are necessary “to maintain the financial viability of the district and to maximize the resources, staff, and programs offered to students.”

Denver schools are funded per pupil. Schools with fewer students have less money to hire teachers and mental health staff, and they often struggle to offer music, art, and other elective classes. The Denver school board voted to close three small schools last year, and board members have said they expect more closures and consolidations are coming.

The proposed policy says the superintendent should not use enrollment minimums — meaning schools with less than a certain number of students — as “bright line criteria” for closing or consolidating schools. It also bars the superintendent from using standardized test scores or school ratings as “a condition” for closure or consolidation.

The superintendent must recommend school consolidations or closures to the board by October each year, and the board must vote by January, the proposal says.

Ahead of Monday’s discussion, the board held three virtual question-and-answer sessions last week about the proposal. In a chat box on Zoom, participants typed questions, including whether the policy would also apply to independently run charter schools, how shuttered school buildings would be repurposed, and why a school’s test scores wouldn’t be considered.

“What kind of safeguards can be added to the policy to ensure equity by preventing the loudest or most connected communities from influencing the recommendations?” one person wrote.

In response to that question, board member Scott Esserman pledged robust community engagement. “We want to hear community voice,” he said, adding, “that doesn’t necessarily mean community decision making” but rather community input into the decisions being made.

But some community members are already calling the board’s engagement practices into question. Last week’s virtual meetings were announced in a district email blast on Tuesday, one day before the last day of school and two days before the Thursday meetings.

About 25 to 30 people attended each of the first two sessions at 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., while just 10 people attended the third at 7 p.m., according to a district spokesperson. Denver Public Schools serves more than 88,000 students.

“It seems like community engagement is an afterthought,” said Clarence Burton, CEO of advocacy organization Denver Families for Public Schools.

At Monday’s school board meeting, board Vice President Marlene De La Rosa apologized.

“It wasn’t the best timing,” she said of last week’s virtual meetings, “but it was necessary that we allow for some feedback from the community.”

Board member Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán proposed several revisions Monday to the draft policy that she said were based on community feedback. Gaytán suggested adding that the superintendent must collaborate with school communities to repurpose a closed school building so that it “benefits the community.” Other board members agreed.

But another of her proposed amendments spurred polite pushback. Gaytán suggested adding two clauses aimed at ensuring certain student groups, including multilingual learners, are not disproportionately impacted by school closure or consolidations, and that any consolidations don’t “exacerbate segregation based on student race, economic class, and language.”

While other board members said they agreed with the spirit of the proposed amendments, some asked: If a school that serves mostly students of color merges with another nearby school that serves the same population, would that exacerbate segregation?

“I’m not saying this can’t be in here,” board member Michelle Quattlebaum said of that proposed amendment. “My question is, How do we communicate that value differently so that we’re not basically saying, ‘You cannot consolidate.’”

In response to community questions about why the board wants to leave standardized test scores out of school closure decisions, board members held firm.

“What we’re focused on right now is right-sizing the district so that students receive the appropriate services, and adding this as a consideration only muddies those possible outcomes,” Esserman said during the virtual meetings.

Board members have been vague about whether the policy would apply to charter schools. It says the superintendent should propose schools for closure or consolidation in a way “that equitably distributes the effects of changing demographics across governance models,” implying the policy would apply to charter schools as well as district-run schools.

While several Denver charter schools have closed on their own due to low enrollment, state law doesn’t explicitly allow school districts to close charter schools for that reason. In the virtual meetings, board members said they would follow state law.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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