Is Denver still for families?
We reached out to Denver Public Schools’ new Superintendent, Dr. Alex Marrero, who took the job last May, to see what he thought. After all, he’s the guy trying to figure out how to save the school district through cuts and possible school closures over the next few years, since enrollment is so low.
Marrero moved from New York City to Denver less than a year ago. He left his whole world behind for Colorado, in part, because this is such a wonderful place to raise a family, he said. When he was thinking about taking the gig, he brought his wife and kids here to check it out, under the pretext of a vacation. They loved it.
Now, his children, three and five, both attend Denver Public Schools. Thinking of his own kids, he’s happy about the decision.
“I 100% feel that Denver is for our families and for our young scholars,” he said. “I think it’s inviting. The support is there. It’s nurturing. It is truly a haven for a young scholar to blossom.”
It may be great for young scholars, but can their families afford it? For many, the answer is no — not with rising housing costs.
There’s plenty that’s tough about Denver these days. Rent and home prices are up. Homelessness is on the rise. Much of the new high-rise construction in Denver is aimed toward single millennial professionals. Many of the new units aren’t big enough for people with children.
“It is difficult for a lot of the families that we serve,” Marrero said.
He’s spoken to some who have moved to the far suburbs and others who have left Colorado altogether for places like rural Texas.
“There’s a lot of other stressors that are forcing folks to make decisions to leave the city,” he added. “Hence, the declining enrollment. So it’s definitely not the schools and the attractions. It’s just other factors. We can get into cost of living. We can get into gentrification. And I don’t think Denver is alone in this. In New York City — I even had to move out of New York City.”
Marrero’s family currently rents in the Highlands. Though he earns $260,000, which is $155,200 more than the area median income for a family of four, he said even he’s struggling to afford housing in the neighborhood, which has historically been a family oriented, affordable community in the Northside.
“I’m telling you, it’s difficult to stay in the Highlands. I’m saying that,” Marrero explained, pointing to his salary. “And if it wasn’t for my role, and how important it is for me to be a taxpayer and also to have the experience of the Denver Public Schools so I can even take a pulse at home, in terms of what’s happening in two different cases, I would possibly be constantly contemplating going to wherever places are more affordable.”
Marrero’s well aware that he’s making way more than most in Denver, including DPS teachers, whose salaries start at $45,800. For a four person family like his, starting teachers are making 50% of the Area Median Income, putting attainable market-rate housing out of reach.
Things are even tougher for DPS support staff. Custodian jobs and paraprofessionals are currently listed at $15.87, or minimum wage. Bus drivers have a new starting wage of $20.43 per hour. Without assistance, many employees who keep the schools running are what’s called “cost burdened.” Their rent or mortgage is eating up more than 30% of their income.
Such low pay makes a move enticing, if not crucial, for working people who staff the school system — especially if they have families to feed and shelter.
People moving, being priced out of neighborhoods and pulling kids from school during the pandemic is driving DPS enrollment down — especially at the elementary level. In fact, enrollment is projected to plummet 6% over the next five years. Marrero characterized that drop as “truly scary.”
He’s already cutting central staff positions and has formed a committee that will decide which small schools may need to be shuttered over the next few years, based on enrollment. He’s even put a committee together to figure out which schools may need to be axed.
Keeping things running has been a challenge. Teachers have been leaving the field. A bus driver shortage led to a preemptive weather closure a few weeks back. Marrero has had to plead with families to serve as substitute teachers, and administrative staffers have also stepped into the classroom because regular subs are in such short supply.
Through it all, Marrero is not despairing, and he sees DPS playing a big role in making Denver a stronger place for families. Improving education at DPS is large part of his plan, but he’s also speaking with power brokers about forming partnerships.
“If we have great schools, in every neighborhood, our enrollment will not suffer as much, because folks will come from wherever or even set up shop in certain places to attend that site,” he said. “Imagine a district that is truly a blue-ribbon district, where every school has an accolade. No one’s going to run away.”
He and Mayor Michael Hancock are in the preliminary stages of launching a food-security program at various schools throughout the city, where families will have a veritable bodega full of options for their nightly meals, Marrero said. That way some families will be able to quit deciding whether to pay for food or shelter.
He’s also in talks with higher education leaders, trying to create teacher education programs that incentivize educators — particularly those with families — to stay in the district.
And as the next round of negotiations between DPS and the teachers union begins, he’s anticipating focusing much of that discussion on the city’s increased cost of living.
“Our teachers union and our district are embarking in negotiations in which cost of living, salary is going to get addressed,” he said. “We anticipate that that’s going to be one of those priorities coming from our staff. Understandably so.”