School closure policy approved by Denver board amid declining enrollment

Puzzle pieces and legos are scattered on a colorful carpet.
Enrollment in Denver Public Schools has been declining over several years, with the steepest decreases at the elementary level. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

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The Denver school board unanimously approved a new policy Thursday for when and how to close schools due to declining enrollment.

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools has been falling since 2019, and despite a recent influx of migrant students, the district is predicting another 8% drop by 2028. The board voted to close three small schools last year and has indicated more closures and consolidations are likely.

Several neighboring school districts, including Jeffco and Aurora, face similar challenges.

The policy frames the decisions as financial: “As economies of scale, financial conditions, and/or populations shift within the District, the operation of certain schools may no longer be feasible in a manner that provides thriving experiences for the District’s students.”

Denver schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools with fewer students have less funding to hire teachers and mental health staff, and often struggle to offer elective classes. Hispanic students and students who qualify for subsidized school meals, an indicator of poverty, are most likely to attend DPS schools with lower enrollment, a recent district report shows.

The policy, officially known as Executive Limitation 18, says:

  • The superintendent should consider consolidating schools “when necessary” and only use closure “as the remaining viable option.” Consolidation is defined as “combining two or more schools into a single more effective or coherent whole within one school building.”
  • Schools of any size are eligible for consolidation or closure, “with a focus on the financial viability of the school.”
  • Standardized test scores or school ratings should not be used “as a sole condition” for consolidation, but the superintendent “may use other academic assessments as part of a holistic set of information to maximize student resources, opportunity, and outcomes.”
  • “When and where possible,” the superintendent should ensure school consolidations “prevent further segregation” based on student race, economic class, or language.
  • When recommending a school for closure or consolidation, the superintendent should collaborate with that school’s community “to identify potential purposes for the building that benefit the community.”
  • The superintendent should hold “more than one in-person/virtual meeting to inform the community about the school consolidation or closure recommendations and engage in conversations to consult with communities regarding the potential impacts and potential steps to ensure support for students, families, and staff through the process.”
  • The superintendent should recommend schools identified for closure or consolidation by October, and the board should vote “no later than November.”
  • Students impacted by school closures or consolidations should have priority enrollment at all district-run and charter schools, and a guaranteed seat at their boundary school.

Board members offered several amendments Thursday, most of which failed to pass. The most heated discussion was about whether standardized test scores should be a factor in deciding which schools to close or consolidate. On a 4-3 vote, the board ended up in a compromise, with language that says test scores should not be used as the “sole condition” but can be considered.

Board President Carrie Olson, Vice President Marlene De La Rosa, and members Kimberlee Sia and John Youngquist voted to add test scores as a condition the superintendent can consider, arguing that a school’s academic performance is important to families. Board members Scott Esserman, Michelle Quattlebaum, and Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán voted against the amendment. Esserman said standardized tests are “based in racism.”

The policy also went through several rounds of revisions before Thursday. One notable change that occurred during the process: Draft versions said schools should be proposed for closure or consolidation in a way “that equitably distributes the effects of changing demographics across governance models.” That language implied the policy would apply to charter schools as well as district-run schools.

The version passed Thursday says DPS should follow “state statutes for closure based on governance type.” State law doesn’t explicitly allow districts to close charter schools for low enrollment, though several Denver charter schools have closed on their own for that reason.

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

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