Denver Public Schools, running out of space to house new programs as its student population surges, is playing policy catch-up to clarify which programs merit space in district buildings.

The proposed facilities policy, which applies to both charter and district schools, would tie placement decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, and other district priorities. “It’s about transparency,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The policy is unusual, said Paul Hill, the founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which focuses on school choice and urban education systems. While other districts may informally base decisions about building use on schools’ performance or other priorities, he said, “[DPS] is ahead of the curve in making it explicit.”

Currently, no clear rules dictate which schools have access to buildings and why. As more programs vie for fewer spaces, the need for a clear policy has become increasingly urgent, district officials said.

“We’re starting from scratch,” said DPS board member Barbara O’Brien. “Before, there was free or available space all over town. Now we’re finding we have to be much more intentional. It’s not easy to find a place for everyone.”

The board plans to vote on a revised version of the policy during its meeting in February. At a meeting on Monday, board members were still recommending tweaks to the policy document. The current draft names factors ranging from a school’s ability to foster socioeconomic integration to its track record operating other schools as criteria in placement decisions.

Pressing needs

DPS has opened 59 school programs since 2008 and plans to open more than two dozen more. Student enrollment in the district has increased by close to 25 percent in the past decade, from 72,000 in 2004 to close to 89,000 this year.

That rapid growth is a dramatic shift. In 2007, after years of stagnant enrollment, then-superintendent Michael Bennet led an effort to close eight schools that had space for many more students than they actually served. Six school buildings remained closed in 2011.

The district now has just one empty school building, the former Rosedale Elementary School in south Denver.

Boasberg said the district plans to request additional funds for buildings from taxpayers in 2016.

But in the meantime, the increasing premium on space as the district pushes to bring in new school programs has at time caused conflict between district leaders and communities.

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said her organization has heard concerns from charter school leaders that favoritism has played a role in some decisions about which schools are placed where. Co-location plans aimed at making use of empty classrooms and a slew of temporary placements have also proved contentious.

Not all of the flare-ups over space have involved charter schools, especially as the district has begun creating its own new school programs that sometimes start without having permanent homes.

The district’s plans to place the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, a district school, in the former Smedley Elementary building, for instance, drew the ire of local community members who wanted a neighborhood elementary school in its place.

“As buildings have become more scarce, absolutely they’ve got to have some kind of policy that’s transparent and objective,” Flood said.

Such a policy, and especially its openness to both charters and non-charters, would be unique in the state, Flood said. Denver is already more inclusive of charter schools in its facility planning than most districts. For instance, while the nonprofits that run charter schools are expected to pay rent for public buildings in some districts—a major cost—that’s not the case in DPS. “Denver is really one of the only districts in the state that shares facilities with charters at all,” she said.

Reiterating priorities

The proposed facilities policy says decisions about placing schools should be based on schools’ quality, mostly as reflected in the district’s school performance framework; schools’ ability to meet the district’s “priority needs,” which might include offering specialized programs or the ability to replace a low-performing program; and enrollment demand in certain areas in the city.

The draft also says schools may be obligated to meet certain requirements, such as offering programs for English learners.

Those guidelines largely line up with the priorities the district laid out in the “Call for New Quality Schools” released in December, which describes where the district is interested in placing new charter or district-run schools.

District officials said the draft policy is based on the set of criteria they had used internally to decide how to place schools in buildings. “There’s no change here in what we’ve been doing. But it’s an effort to put in one document, in a real coherent form, exactly how these choices are made,” Boasberg said.

Still unfinished

The policy was initially scheduled for a vote this week. But at the board’s work session on Monday, board member Arturo Jimenez suggested some tweaks. He said the district should emphasize, for instance, that board members must be informed of plans for buildings in a timely manner.

He also cautioned that the policy might be read as favoring charter schools with already-existing programs over new district-run programs, given its emphasis on previous academic performance.

Charter school leaders commended the explicit focus on academics and diversity. “To have DPS leadership formally link academic performance to facility allocation is a great step for Denver kids,” said James Cryan, the founder of Rocky Mountain Prep, a Denver charter school. “Facilities are often the largest barrier to growth for high-performing public schools.”

“We want to be creating integrated schools. Denver is a diverse city, and we want to be careful that our schools reflect that,” said Bill Kurtz, the founder of the DSST network of charter schools. “It’s a great opportunity to say explicitly, these are the things we value in our schools and these are the places we want to invest.”

Kurtz said he wondered how changes to state testing policy might affect the measures the district used to place schools.

Van Schoales, the director of A Plus Denver, an advocacy organization focused on schools in the district, said that it would be helpful to have a rubric along with the policy so stakeholders could see exactly which factors influenced each decision.

And Thomas Carr, the parent of a student at the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, said he thought that the policy looked thoughtful and comprehensive. But, he said, he was concerned that it represented yet another instance of test scores holding the most sway in decisions about education.

“With the performance framework listed as criterion number one, I worry that the well-funded schools and/or schools with teaching philosophies that teach to the test will get preference in the process,” he said.