Denver Public Schools board to consider new school closure policy

As Denver Public Schools prepares to close schools to combat falling enrollment, the district’s Board of Education is considering a policy change to no longer focus solely on the district’s smallest schools.

The policy, if adopted by the board, would direct Superintendent Alex Marrero to develop a consolidation plan that does not use enrollment minimums, such as the 215-student threshold recommended by a community committee last year, as a “bright line criteria.”

This would mean schools of any size are “eligible for consolidation,” according to the draft policy.

“As kindergarten enrollment has declined since 2014, a stigma now exists for ‘small schools,’ which can accelerate the school’s enrollment decline,” the latest draft of the policy says.

By removing the threshold, board member Scott Baldermann said it is his hope that the “burden” of declining enrollment won’t be concentrated on the district’s smallest schools.

The goal, he said, “Is to make sure that all schools are part of the declining enrollment solution.”

The school board is expected to discuss the policy, along with another one that would cap elementary school enrollment at 600 pupils, during a public meeting Thursday. Members have not yet voted on the policies, which could be revised again.

It’s unclear what impact — if any — a change in the consolidation policy could have on the 15 schools DPS has identified as having sufficiently low enrollment that they could be closed.

“I would not be appropriate for Denver Public Schools to speculate on hypothetical situations prior to the board deliberating, potentially amending and then formally voting on this proposed policy,” board spokesman Bill Good said.

The board already has voted to close three of those 15 schools — Fairview Elementary, Denver Discovery and Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy — at the end of the current academic year.

Marrero is expected to release a final recommendation for the other 12 schools in September. The district considers those schools to have “concerning enrollment,” meaning they have fewer than 215 students each. Seven of the schools were recommended for closure last year.

“We are currently engaged in community conversations at several schools that are impacted by enrollment declines to ensure they have strong plans for school sustainability as well as to gather their input on how to move forward with any future recommendations,” district spokesman Scott Pribble said in a statement.

“We will work with individual schools as well as the broader community to determine if any options emerge for the superintendent and board to consider as solutions to address our collective enrollment challenges,” he said.

Enrollment has declined at DPS for three consecutive years because of falling births, rising housing prices and gentrification. The district is facing a potential $9 million budget shortfall because it receives less funding when there are fewer students.

The board has been reluctant to close schools and, in November, rejected a closure plan. Marrero initially recommended closing 10 schools, before narrowing it to five schools, then two.

Members also have talked about the need to look at consolidation more equitably — the schools recommended for closure in the fall enrolled a higher percentage of students of color than the district — and more broadly.

The board’s draft of the consolidation policy also would prohibit the use of standardized test scores or school-performance framework ratings as reasons to close schools. School boundaries that are merged into one also have to be within two miles of each other, according to the draft.

In the enrollment policy draft, the board is considering having the district develop school boundaries and enrollment zones that “account for shifting demographics and housing trends.”

The policy, if passed, would have the district review and adjust boundaries and zones at least every four years. It would also create a cap of 600 students at elementary schools.

But at the same time, it states the district should “maintain financially sustainable enrollment” for elementary schools, which it defines as having 300 students with two classes of 25 students per grade, or 450 students with three classes of 25 students per grade, or 600 students with four classes of 25 students per grade.

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