The December 2021 Aurora Public Schools board of education meeting was the busiest since the board returned to having meetings in person. Every seat in the room was full, and across the hall, an overflow room was crowded with people signed up to speak.
Most of the attendees were wearing either union red or purple, the colors of Sable Elementary, a school tucked on an eponymous boulevard in northwest Aurora. Though small, the school was tight-knit and lauded for its work serving students from immigrant backgrounds.
The week before the meeting, the district caught Sable teachers and families off guard by announcing that the school would be recommended for closure at the end of the 2022-2023 school year as part of its ongoing Blueprint APS plan.
“The only way to describe it is that we were blindsided,” Sable employee Leslie Burton told The Sentinel.
At the meeting, the Sable community let their disapproval be known, and did so again at the next several board meetings and the community forums the district held specifically to address the decision.
At its March meeting, the board ultimately voted to reject the superintendent’s recommendation that Sable be closed. The news was met with adulation by those who viewed it as a victory against a process they had criticized for a deficit of transparency and community involvement.
But it also raises questions about the future of Blueprint APS, which has been underway almost five years, and whether the board will be able to come together to agree on an alternative.
“Going forward, I suspect this board is going to be electric and dynamic,” board member Michael Carter told The Sentinel. “Getting us to all agree on anything even though we’re family…it’s going to be tough. It’s going to take accountability and communication.”
Blueprint APS was launched in 2018 as a way to manage the district’s buildings and resources in response to declining enrollment trends after its former facilities plan expired in 2017. Like many urban school districts across the country, APS has been experiencing a persistent enrollment decline for about the past five years.
In the past six years, APS has lost around 3,800 students. According to Colorado Department of Education data, 42,249 students were enrolled in the district in the 2015-2016 school year and 38,451 in the fall of 2021 — an 8% decrease. That’s due in large part to declining birth rates and fewer families moving into the city as housing prices soar, but about 14% of students within district boundaries currently attend non-district schools as well. (That percentage has not increased significantly over time but it has been a “persistent challenge” for the district, Superintendent Rico Munn told The Sentinel.) The locations where families with young children live has also shifted, with growth increasing along Aurora’s E-470 corridor and declining in the western part of the city.
To address these trends, Blueprint APS divides the district into seven geographic regions. Enrollment will be assessed on a region-wide level, and some schools in each region that are considered under-enrolled will be closed, with students re-zoned to go to other nearby schools.
The district will also build a magnet school focused on a different subject in each region that students anywhere in the district (and even outside of it) can apply to. The first two magnet schools, focused on the arts and entrepreneurship, will open in the fall.
After putting the plan in place, APS began the implementation phase of Blueprint in the spring of 2019, and in January of 2021, the school board voted to approve the superintendent’s recommendations for three of the regions, which included repurposing or closing several elementary schools, remodeling others and opening a new P-8 school and the two magnet schools.
The recommendations for Region 1 were rolled out almost a year later, at the beginning of December. They included closing Sable and Paris elementary schools due to low enrollment and opening a magnet school focused on health on the campus of North Middle School along with a P-TECH program, a six-year program beginning in ninth grade that allows students to graduate with a high school diploma and a college associate’s degree.
Almost immediately, the decision was met with backlash due to the suggestion to close Sable. An initial document released in 2019 identified Crawford Elementary, Paris Elementary, Park Lane Elementary and North Middle schools as Region 1 schools that were under consideration for being closed or repurposed — but not Sable.
At the December meeting, Munn said that list was supposed to be seen as a draft, and not a guarantee that schools that weren’t included would never be taken into consideration. It wasn’t a message that seemed to translate to the community, which spent the next several months telling the board and district administration they felt like a rug had been pulled out from under them.
Communicating effectively about Blueprint APS has been an ongoing preoccupation for district leadership, which has said that it considers community involvement paramount at every step of the process. But despite the community forums, online surveys, focus groups, task forces and other outreach methods in multiple languages the district has touted throughout Blueprint, one of the main frustrations voiced by Sable parents is that they did not understand the process or feel like APS was taking them into consideration.
“The logistics and people power it takes to communicate are not easy…at the same time, neither is the decision to close schools,” said Linnea Reed-Ellis, president of the Aurora Education Association, which has supported Sable employees’ efforts to keep the school open.
The district’s attempts to explain the thought process behind the decision in the ensuing months met with little success. A virtual community forum in January turned sour when the district’s decision not to record the audience Q&A portion — intended as a decision to respect people’s privacy — was interpreted as another sign that parent’s voices weren’t being listened to.
Parents were also skeptical of the explanation that the district didn’t have a plan for what the Sable building would be repurposed for because leadership considered it inappropriate to make that decision before the community had even been notified it would potentially be closed. Throughout public comment, a common implication from parents was that the decision was being made so that the district could sell the school building, and was not truly for students’ benefit.
APS also got a cold shoulder from city government, with several Aurora city councilmembers grilling the district on the recommendation when it addressed them during a study session in early March. Councilmember Crystal Murillo spoke at public comment during the board’s February meeting in opposition to the plan, saying that she had 50 people show up to her January town hall upset about the Sable closure and asking if there was a way the district could partner with the city to pursue another decision.
“Don’t leave any option unexplored,” she said to loud applause.
Katherine Schultz, dean of CU Boulder’s School of Education, said that school closures are frequent sources of conflict between district leadership and families, particularly when districts close schools that serve as community touchstones, as many people said Sable does.
“So often when districts close schools they do it without paying close attention to the impact in the community, and to the students, and it does create distrust because there are often questions that people raise about, ‘Why this school? Why now?’” she said.
School closures “introduce a sense of precarity into a community,” Schultz said. “They feel that their dignity is being trampled on, and that they aren’t key stakeholders. And of course they are.”
Things came to a head on March 22, when the school board had to make a final vote on the recommendation. The board had the option to vote in February but postponed the decision another month, with several board members saying they didn’t feel ready.
The extra month appeared to be of limited benefit, as during the discussion board members voiced confusion over what their options were and what would happen if they rejected the vote. Several board members expressed a desire to split up the vote — deciding on each recommendation individually — but were told that under their own policies they were not allowed to do so.
Ultimately, board members Debbie Gerkin, Carter and Anne Keke voted yes on the recommendation (Keke after a long hesitation). The other four board members, Tramaine Duncan, Nichelle Ortiz, Vicki Reinhard and Stephanie Mason, voted no.
The sense of elation in the room was palpable as the understanding that the vote would fail dawned. Immediately after the vote several “Save Sable” supporters got up from their seats and unfurled a large, prepared banner in the back of the room.
“Dear Community, You Just Saved Sable” it declared in colorful spray paint.
One of the banner holders was Liliana Saffron, who works as a family liaison at Sable. She was upset that the district would close a school that did such a good job at meeting the needs of its students, many of whom were low income or come from immigrant families and relied on the school for essentials like regular meals.
“Sable is not just an elementary school, it is a community hub,” she said at public comment in March.
The board members who voted no said that they were largely driven by frustration over how the process was handled and what they saw as a lack of transparency, particularly regarding the decision to close Sable.
During the meeting, board member Reinhard said she was “highly uncomfortable” with the process and said that the effects of the pandemic had to be taken into consideration when going forward with Blueprint.
“This is not the same community that we started the project with,” she said.
Reinhard and Ortiz both said they were unhappy with how little notice Sable was given, and didn’t think it was fair that the school was told it was being considered for closure only several months before the vote.
Ortiz said she would like for the board to implement a requirement that schools must be on a list for potential closure for at least a year before the recommendation could go to a formal vote, and that the district needed to be more intentional about the way it communicated to families.
“Considering the languages and diversity of our district I don’t think it’s that we didn’t try to do the communication, I think the way we packaged it was confusing to people,” she said.
Board members Mason and Ortiz declined to speak to The Sentinel. Reinhard did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Duncan, who voted no, told The Sentinel he would have voted to approve the closure of Paris and the magnet/P-Tech program if the decisions were separated out but that he could not support the closure of Sable.
He said he supports Ortiz’s idea of a longer timeline, and personally would like for Park Lane to be repurposed and its students sent to Sable instead, which could house more students if mobile classrooms were used or more permanent classrooms were built.
However, he said that district families need to understand that it’s inevitable that some schools will have to be closed.
“I don’t want schools to feel like all they need to do is come and make noise at our board meetings or gather community to keep their school open,” he said. “We want you all to be a part of the conversation of what we should do next, but we need to put the information out in a way people understand it. It goes both ways.”
Carter said he had similar concerns, and was worried about the message the vote sent, although he also agreed that communication should be improved.
“We need to be accountable, and the first thing we do is punt,” he said. “How does that help?”
The Sable community is entitled to their frustration, he said, but at the end of the day, the board is accountable to the entire 40,000-student district and he thought this was the best way to help preserve resources for all students.
“The narrative out there that hurt me was that we were trying to abandon kids,” Carter said. “We want them to get the quality education that we deserve. That’s one of the reasons I’m behind it.”
Gerkin, the board’s president, had a similar frame of mind for her yes vote.
“I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she told The Sentinel. “But even more than that, we must be thinking about every child’s education and making sure that every kiddo gets an equitable shot at shaping a successful future.”
Keke said she thought the recommendation was in the best interest the district’s students, even though it was a difficult decision.
“These are pretty hard decisions and they can get pretty personal,” she said. “My hope is that we do the right thing by our kids, by our students, when all is said and done.”
One of the district’s overarching concerns regarding low enrollment was that it could create inequities between students in different schools. Schools with lower enrollment are less cost-effective, and more of their budgets are slated toward building maintenance than student services, according to district documents. This could lead to a situation where some APS students didn’t have access to the same classroom resources as others, depending on what size their school was.
Munn said that if the board decided it wanted to intentionally pursue a small-school strategy (which has benefits as well, such as closer relationships between teachers and students) the district would work to mitigate those disparities.
“The problem is if you don’t intentionally pursue a small school strategy…that’s when you start to see imbalances in services for kids, and that’s the situation we’ve been trying to avoid by going through this Blueprint process,” Munn said. “But if you intentionally pursue a small schools strategy what you likely see is fewer services across the district but an equal distribution of them.”
After the vote on Tuesday, the board members struggled to come to a consensus about what they wanted to see next. The no vote triggered a requirement that Munn come back to the board with a new recommendation, but he struggled to explain to them that if they wanted something different they had to change the criteria for how the decisions were made.
The district is not currently using academic performance as a factor it looks at when considering what schools to close, nor is it simply identifying the absolute lowest-enrolled schools district wide and closing those.
Some of the board members seemed frustrated that the district hadn’t prepared another plan already in the event of a rejection.
“We do not work for you, you work for us,” Mason said at one point.
Eventually, they came to a decision that Munn would come back at the board’s May meeting with a set of Region 1 recommendations that can be voted on individually along with information about what pausing Blueprint would mean, including what the financial and other implications of doing that would be.
The board could potentially have a second opportunity to vote on the existing recommendations, if Munn brought them forward again. They could also decide to pursue a completely different approach for the rest of Blueprint, if they came up with something a majority of them agreed with.
Changing course at this point would have “serious financial implications” for the district, Munn said, as it would have to figure out how to prioritize resources at the same time as enrollment (and therefore the district’s budget) is declining. But he stressed the district isn’t doing this because it’s in a financial crisis (it went through a major budget restructure in 2017 before starting Blueprint), it’s doing it to address demographic trends.
Part of the chaotic nature of the process is the fact that it’s a long-term plan overseen by board members who serve limited terms, and the people who launched the process won’t necessarily agree with those who take up its mantle after they are gone. Whether that’s a feature or a bug is in the eye of the beholder.
“Democracy is never easy,” Munn said.
You have to wonder where some of these board members come from. Just the comparison given the potentials of student population which always ebb and flow shuttering Sable was the exact wrong thing to do. The board members, may have looked at some census information that is not exact data and the schools current enrollment. The reality of the capability lost and overall disadvantage of busing kids away from the Sable district was one, not surprising, but something almost of an excuse looking like political problem solving. Altura elementary, has no more room period, but we are to stuff kids into ever square inch in its smaller foot print than Sable. This so- called data driven creation would have us believe Altura Blvd, the single lane each way street that is totally shut down with traffic during drop off and pick up time. And we are expected to think that will get better? Please… Sable, on the other hand, has Sable Blvd that slows down but never clogged and proven to handle the traffic. And now, there is going to be some new high density apartment right in the front door at Altura. What is that going to look like? Whatever, the school board had in mind for Sable, that conversation seemed ambiguous, which makes me really wonder what this was all about to start with. –
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