Denver school closure plan gets tough reception from board, families

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero’s proposal to close 10 schools got a tough reception from the school board Thursday, with some board members grilling him for a recommendation that has rattled school communities.

Three of the seven board members — Auon’tai Anderson, Michelle Quattlebaum and Scott Esserman — said during Thursday’s meeting or in interviews afterward that they oppose the closings, which Marrero has said are necessary to address declining enrollment.

Two others – Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsay – said they are undecided.

Board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán declined to say how he would vote. But she said she’s concerned that some students, including English language learners, aren’t getting the robust services they deserve at the 10 schools because funding is short. Board member Carrie Olson was absent from Thursday’s meeting due to a family emergency.

Some board members suggested Marrero go back to the drawing board by rescinding the resolution directing him to come up with a plan to consolidate the schools in the first place. They said the process felt rushed, top-down and not transparent.

“There are a lot of unknowns that are not giving our families and the community comfort in this process,” Quattlebaum said.

Marrero is billing the closings as consolidations because students and staff from the 10 schools will be reassigned to nearby schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the package — all 10 closings or none at all — on Nov. 17.

In the nine days since the recommendation was announced, parents and family members at the 10 schools have gathered at meetings scheduled by principals to hear more and voice their concerns about a proposal that many say has blinded.

At some of the meetings, principals have stood with mid-level district administrators in the cafeteria, facing rows of frustrated parents and grandparents, some with young children in tow. The meetings were full of short questions and answers.

Parents have wanted to know how big the classes will be in the consolidated schools. But officials said that’s impossible to know until they see how many students show up next year.

Parents asked for assurances that the district won’t go back and close the host schools in a year or two, again impeding their children’s education. But the officials could not give it.

Families wanted to know how the district will provide transportation for consolidated schools amid a bus driver shortage. The district will do its best, officials said.

Most of all, families wanted to know if they could save their schools from closing.

“Is this just a foregone conclusion and our elected officials are not convincing?” asked Rick Levy, the father of a preschooler at Eagleton Elementary, one of 10 schools recommended for closure, at a Thursday morning meeting in the school cafeteria.

“They absolutely want to hear from you,” said Dana Williams, an administrator who oversees a group of elementary schools, including Eagleton.

But no elected officials attended that meeting. School board members have attended some meetings at the 10 schools recommended for closure, but not all. There were no board members at a 3:30 pm meeting at Columbian Elementary the other day.

In some cases, meetings have overlapped, making it impossible for board members to be in two places at once. In other cases, board members were not notified until an hour in advance.

At least two community organizations have called for stronger engagement.

EDUCATE Denver, a coalition of civic leaders, and Denver Families for Public Schools, a nonprofit that among other initiatives aims to increase participation in school board elections, separately called on the district to hold at least one meeting at each school. that can be closed and in any school that can take their students. The superintendent and local board member must attend those meetings, both groups said.

The two groups also asked that the board hold an expanded public comment session and that the district facilitate one-on-one meetings with families affected by the closings.

But so far, the only chance for parents and community members to make their case before the seven board members who will vote on the recommendation is a single public comment session scheduled for Nov. 14, three days before the vote. .

Marrero defended the tight timeline Thursday. Slowing the process would cause staff and students to leave schools recommended for closure, he said, further depleting per-pupil funding. Consolidations work best when everyone can move to a new school together, he said. But some board members backed out.

“When we haven’t had direct conversations with the affected communities until we come up with the plan, it’s district-driven, it’s not community-driven,” Esserman said.

Families in Columbian and Eagleton agreed the district is not providing enough opportunities for them to speak up. Parents are finding they don’t have much time to organize. At Columbian, parent Darcy Cornish Lovato passed out handwritten “Save our school” lawn signs. In Eagleton, Tara De La Fuente asked other parents to scan a QR code and sign a petition.

“One or two meetings at each school will not cover all families,” said Arturo Orozco, the father of a fifth-grader at Eagleton. Many parents, he said, have to work and can’t attend in-person meetings on a weekday morning or afternoon.

“This is more than a school. This is a community,” Orozco said.

“Our community is going to be hurt because of this.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at [email protected].

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