More pushback as Denver Public Schools cuts list of recommended school closures

Denver Public Schools’ decision to slash the list of schools it is recommending closing in half ignited further pushback from education groups on Friday, with some questioning why the Board of Education didn’t halt the plan’s rollout before it caused “chaos.”

The district announced late Thursday evening that it is now only proposing to close five schools instead of 10. The decision was announced just after nearby Jeffco Public Schools’ Board of Education voted to go through with shutting down 16 elementary schools next year.

“They’re making decisions today that they should have made three weeks ago before they released 10 schools,” said Milo Marquez, chair of the Latino Education Coalition. “They need to go back to the table and restart the process. It’s caused confusion. People are upset now – even more so than they were two days ago.”

From the beginning, the district’s plan to close schools to combat declining enrollment has faced criticism from education groups, parents, students, and even a few school board directors.

The fallout has centered on how DPS decided which schools to recommend, the lack of community input, how quickly the district is moving, and the fact that the proposal disproportionally affects students of color.

Now, the state’s largest school district has cut its proposal in half.

But education groups said Friday they didn’t understand why the district seemly changed the criteria it used to determine which schools to recommend for closure. Marquez questioned whether the district removed certain schools from the list because their students’ families were more outspoken than others about their potential closure.

“I’m frustrated with the school board,” Marquez said, adding, “Now they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, this can’t happen.’”

But, he asked, “Why didn’t they stop it before it caused this chaos that is plaguing the community now?”

Other groups, including Educate Denver and Denver Families for Public Schools, said the district’s handling of the plan’s rollout made it seem as though administrators and school board directors weren’t communicating with each other about a decision that will affect hundreds of students.

“I’m almost at the point where I would recommend an emergency board meeting,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, co-chair of Educate Denver, a coalition of more than 30 education and political leaders. The group issued a letter earlier this month calling on DPS to be more transparent about school closures.

Two school board members pushed back on such criticism, even as they expressed dissatisfaction with the plan’s rollout themselves.

“The board and the superintendent are in communication,” said board director Scott Esserman, adding, “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be butterflies and unicorns.”

“They’re compromising”

DPS first announced its plan to close schools on Oct. 25. The district used four sets of criteria to decide which schools should close, including an enrollment threshold of fewer than 215 students.

Now, the district is proposing closing only the smallest of the 10 schools on the list. Those schools are: Denver Discover School, Schmitt Elementary, Fairview Elementary, International Academy of Denver at Harrington, and Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The schools removed from the recommendation list are Columbian Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Colfax Elementary, Whittier K-8 and Eagleton Elementary.

In a letter to parents on Thursday, Superintendent Alex Marrero said the “other five schools are still under consideration and will continue to be supported as we more closely engage with those respective communities.”

It’s not entirely clear why DPS, the state’s largest district, suddenly changed its school closure plan. The district said in its announcement that the five schools still being considered receive more than two-thirds of the almost $5 million DPS provides to subsidize the original 10 schools.

DPS took a “deeper dive into all the numbers” and discovered that it could keep half the initial schools open and still save money, spokesman Scott Pribble said.

He did not say what spurred the district to reexamine its list of schools. When asked why the money wasn’t considered as part of the initial criteria used to develop the school closure plan, Pribble said: “We’re continuing to evaluate our options and look at a way to address the declining enrollment situation.”

“It sounds like they are responding to the community in a positive way,” said Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They’re compromising.”

The district’s school closure plan still predominantly affects students of color, she said.

“The decision is very interesting … because those individual schools have not been as vocal as others,” said board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson about the new plan.

He has been outspoken about the district’s plan since it was released and has said he plans to introduce an item on the agenda for next week’s meeting so directors can vote on whether to revoke a 2021 resolution that directs Marrero to develop a plan to address low enrollment in schools.

Both Anderson and Esserman said there hasn’t been enough community engagement with families about the proposed closures.

DPS should have met with the schools and asked their employees and families what they wanted to happen, Anderson said. For example, he said, would families be fine with a school cutting art or gym classes if it meant their school gets to stay open?

But Anderson said placing blame on the board for the district’s handling of the proposal is “unfair.”

“We found out only two weeks ago so we didn’t have ample time to provide the necessary feedback,” he said, adding, “This was clearly the superintendent making these recommendations.”

The school board adopted a new governance model last year to help directors define their roles and that of the superintendent.

Under the model, the board sets “end policies” that act more as goals they want the district to achieve. This gives Marrero flexibility on how to achieve a policy without the board passing resolutions directing the superintendent to do something.

Confusion over public comments

Adding to the confusion around the district’s decision, parents and others who planned to speak during a board meeting on Monday received emails Friday from the district telling them that “because the number of schools considered for consolidation has been reduced, your school is no longer impacted at this time, and you may not be eligible to participate during this special public comment session.”

Monday’s meeting is one of the final chances for the public to weigh in on the proposed closures before the school board votes on Nov. 17 on whether or not to approve the plan.

At least three school board members — Esserman, Anderson, and Michelle Quattlebaum  — opposed the initial plan. Anderson and Esserman said they still plan to vote against the proposed closures.

Four board members need to vote against the plan to kill it. Directors Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, Scott Baldermann and Carrie Olson declined to comment on the plan. Quattlebaum and Charmaine Lindsay did not respond to an interview request.

Six minutes after the first email was sent, the district sent a second one that said “the previous (email) may have wrongly indicated your school is no longer impacted by the consolidation,” according to a copy obtained by The Denver Post.

The district sent a third email to parents and other community members on Friday apologizing.

“We apologize if our previous communication caused any confusion,” the email read. “To be clear, everyone who signed up is still eligible to speak at public comment.”

The intention of the emails was to alert people to how long Monday’s meeting might run next week and to give families a chance to remove their name from the list of speakers if their school is no longer being considered for closure, Pribble said.

The district is anticipating public comments could last as much as 12 hours and run into Tuesday morning because so many people have signed up to speak, he said.

“The change in direction is an acknowledgment of the failure to adequately engage community,” said Clarence Burton, chief executive officer of Denver Families for Public Schools, a nonprofit that seeks to increase participation in school board elections.

“Until clear and united leadership is demonstrated, school communities will continue to suffer in uncertainty,” Burton said in a statement.

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