It’s “unlikely” that some of the 10 Denver public schools that avoided permanent closure this week will stay open in the future

The Denver Public School board voted no on recommendations to close schools. But Superintendent Alex Marrero says change will likely still come for schools with low enrollment.
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Dr. Alex Marrero, who was chosen by Denver Public Schools to be its new superintendent, speaks to South High School students after a press conference announcing his appointment on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Ten Denver Public Schools (DPS) with low enrollment avoided closure this week, but Superintendent Alex Marrero said he thinks many will still face budget cuts and closures in coming years.

Marrero told Denverite Friday that despite the school board voting no on any school closures, all 10 schools are still "on watch" for unification or combination with nearby schools in coming years. He added that the district may have to make "tough decisions" regarding their budgets in a few months.

"Because of all the attention that they [the 10 schools] received, we anticipate flight from staff and flight from students," Marrero said. "So regardless of the vote yesterday, the likelihood that these schools are going to survive in certain cases, unlikely."

Marrero originally recommended 10 schools for closure due to low enrollment in October, but then revised that list to five schools for the board to vote on following community pushback.

Marrero further revised that list to only two schools, Denver Discovery School and Math and Science Leadership Academy, Thursday night right before the board rejected the final recommendations.

Even though no schools will close for now, Marrero thinks his future recommendations could still cause school closures.

DPS expects an annual loss of around $36 million to schools in coming years as it deals with declining enrollment across the district.

DPS cites low birth rates, gentrification that's pushing out long-time residents and childless families moving into the city as causes. But a Chalkbeat analysis found that in the past decade the district opened too many schools, many of them charter schools, despite demographic trends. Charter schools have different requirements for closure, and none of the schools recommended for "unification" were charters.

Because the closure recommendations failed, Marrero said "emergency closures" could be possible down the line. "We simply cannot function this way," he said.

Marrero said he made the decision to ask the board to vote only on two schools Thursday night because he thought it would be the easiest choice for members to make.

"It was last minute, but it was also me trying to get to the board to a place that they can make a decision," he said. "It was my attempt to say, 'These schools are in dire states, one, they're the easiest ones to really consider, and I know that the communities are ready for it, and the co-location of those schools is simply not working."

Even that vote failed, with many board members expressing frustration at the last-minute change.

They questioned what felt to many as insufficient community engagement and expressed concern about the emotional effect of all the back and forth about closures on community members. Many also called for more equity in the process; all the schools slated for closure have a high population of non-white students and students who receive free and reduced lunch.

Some board members raised questions about the possibility of redistricting to send more students to smaller schools, or other options that could keep some schools open. Marrero said he's not sure about that possibility but will listen to the board's future direction.

"I'm as curious as you are," he said. "That's not what we're looking at on our district... But I know that I heard that from the board, and what I heard a little bit was that they may put that into some sort of policy, and I'm looking to see what that looks like, and I'm also looking to see if I'll be allowed to engage in that process."

While parents and students at the recommended schools avoided closure this past week, advocates remain worried about their schools and frustrated with the district.

Dominic Diaz' daughter attends Fairview Elementary, one of the schools originally recommended for closure despite a possibility that vast developments could bring back displaced and future students to Sun Valley.

Like many parents, Diaz said he did not think DPS did enough to engage local communities. "It felt like the students were an afterthought," he said.

For Diaz, who is also running for City Council at-large, the fight isn't over. "This conversation is not done and I think it's important that we really examine the funding sources, making sure that we get equitable outcomes but most importantly as parents, we've got to stay organized and we've got to remain vigilant about what comes out of the DPS school board," he said.

Mandy Nunes Hennessey has been organizing against the closures with Mamas de DPS and plans to continue pushing the district to look for other solutions. She says even the two closures ultimately voted down would have been too many.

"This is a postponement of the issue and nothing more," she said. "We need to ask the district - what are their priorities and values if our neighborhood schools are under constant threat of closure?"

Desiree Mathurin contributed reporting.

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