The Board of Education overseeing Jeffco Public Schools, the second-largest district in the state, voted unanimously Thursday to close 16 elementary schools as a way to tackle plunging enrollment.
The closures, most of which will take place at schools across Denver’s suburbs next year, are just the first step in the district’s consolidation plan. Jeffco Public Schools plans to announce next year which secondary schools it wants to close.
Overall, the elementary school closures will affect more than 2,400 children and 422 full-time employees.
In explaining the reason for their votes, school board directors said the district is in financial straits and that smaller schools have fewer resources, which is affecting the instruction and mental health supports students receive.
“I cannot leave some kids in under resourced schools while others get everything they need and more,” said school board member Paula Reed during the meeting about why she voted for the closures. “And when we talk about our students of color and our students who are marginalized these are very often the students we are leaving in low resource schools.”
As board members explained why they were voting for the school closures, murmurs erupted from the crowd watching the meeting and people shook their heads in disagreement.
“Shame on you!” multiple people yelled after the board voted.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said parent Melissa Jacobson.
She has three kids — two kindergarteners and a third-grader — who attend Kullerstrand Elementary School in Wheat Ridge, which will shutdown next year.
“We all want good education for our kids,” Jacobson said. “Hopefully this will work. We’ve lost faith in our district through this process.”
Most schools will close before the 2023-24 academic year at schools in Arvada, Evergreen, Lakewood, Littleton, Westminster, and Wheat Ridge. One school – Bergen Meadow Elementary in Evergreen – will close the following year, before the 2024-25 academic year.
Many of the parents and others who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting said they did not feel the district did enough outreach with the community before releasing its proposal. All encouraged the board to vote against the school closures.
“We are asking for a smarter plan that includes our voices,” said Destiny Farr, of Lakewood, during the meeting.
Members of the public told the board that they had lost trust in Jeffco Public Schools, questioned why district employees received pay raises earlier this year, and said the plan was too vague on what will happen once schools closed. Some also said they were concerned about how the proposal is disproportionately affecting students of color.
“You’re leaving giant question marks in your wake,” added Mollie Crampton, a parent whose children go to New Classical Academy at Vivian Elementary. The school is among those that will close.
“How are we supposed to trust you with the most important people in our lives?” she asked the board.
Jeffco Public Schools has seen one of the largest enrollment declines in the state. The district lost more than 5,000 students between 2019 and 2022. It has the capacity to serve 96,000 children but only has about 69,000 students, according to the district.
“The (closures are) a reflection of Jeffco’s changing demographics,” said Superintendent Tracy Dorland during Thursday’s meeting, adding, “I regret this recommendation is needed at this time and I sincerely apologize to the communities that are impacted and grieving.”
K-12 school districts across the nation are facing declining enrollment, which districts in Colorado have said is caused by falling birth rates and shifting populations. Neighboring Denver Public Schools has also proposed shutting down schools to address the crisis and its Board of Education is expected to vote on school closures on Nov. 17.Though Tuesday evening, DPS Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero announced a “modification” of its plan, removing five schools from the closure proposal.
The overall population in Jefferson County has grown in recent decades, but the 2020 Census shows it has dropped among school-aged children after peaking in 2001.
Roughly, 45% of families choose not to attend their neighborhood elementary school in the district, according to Jeffco Public Schools.
Schools that have fewer students receive less money. For example, Jeffco Public Schools has said its elementary schools with the most money receive more than $19,000 per student while smaller schools get under $14,000 per student. District officials have said this has led to inequitable resources at schools and is why Jeffco Public Schools needs to close
“Jeffco is in the middle of a rapidly worsening financial crisis,” said school board director Susan Miller during the meeting.
Despite falling revenue, costs in the district have increased and the district is facing a deficit, she said.
“When this board approved (employee) raises we brought our salaries in line with surrounding areas, but at a cost that tonight we have to face,” Miller said.
The local teachers union said it was “completely false to argue that schools need to close because they’ve agreed to pay their education professionals a living wage.” Brooke Williams, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said in a statement that the district is still facing widespread staffing shortages.
“Schools have to close largely because the state’s education system is chronically underfunded and has been so for decades — which means that many of our schools no longer have the resources that our students need and deserve,” she said in a statement, adding, “To lay these closings at the feet of teachers, who are underpaid and overworked, is ignorant at best and cruel at worst.”
Jeffco previously addressed low enrollment by cutting art and music classes and merging multiple grades into a single classroom, she said.
At Jeffco Public Schools, the drop in enrollment has been most noticeable in elementary schools as 49 of them have fewer than 250 students and/or less than 60% of their building capacity.
The district is closing schools that enroll fewer than 220 K-6 students or use 45% or less of their building capacity. They also have another school that is less than 3.5 miles away.
Jeffco Public Schools plans to move most students from one school to another campus so they can stay with their classmates. Employees at the schools will be able to interview for jobs at other schools, according to the district.