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Students, parents speak out as Poudre School District closures loom

Students, parents speak out as Poudre School District closures loom


By Rae Solomon, KUNC (Via AP Storyshare)

Lilian Moore is just 10 years old, but she’s already clear on how she feels about shutting down local schools.

“You throw this amazing place where many children have thrived – you just throw it into the garbage can,” Lilian said, standing just outside the auditorium at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, where a public listening session about proposed school closures in Larimer County’s Poudre School District was stretching on for hours. “It’s super sad.”

Declining enrollment is behind those proposed closures. In March, the district unveiled draft plans to close some neighborhood schools and rebalance school populations by distributing those kids to other district schools. According to the district, such consolidations are necessary because of a budget crisis caused by the enrollment troubles. District officials attribute the enrollment drop to declining birthrates and a shifting population within the district. The proposed changes would take effect at the start of the 2025-2026 school year.

Lilian, who is now a fourth grader at Lopez Elementary in Fort Collins, was dismayed to see her own school floated for possible closure.

“That would mean I will be the last group to graduate from Lopez,” she said. “And I just will be extremely upset graduating with that message.”

The idea upset her so much that she came with her parents to the public meeting in mid-April to speak up for her beloved school.

While the school board and superintendent listened, hundreds of parents, teachers and students, including Lilian, took turns at the microphone.

“We chose Lopez because of the diversity of our school. At Lopez, I see families that look like mine and friends that look like me,” Lilian, who is biracial, told the school board. “While many of you have the privilege to overlook the significance of diversity, for students like me, it’s crucial.”

Within this district of 30,000 students, Lopez is a diverse elementary school. Lilian’s mother, Fana Mulu-Moore, said it would be a grave mistake to disband and disperse such a unique community.

“Fort Collins is not the most diverse city, right?” Mulu-Moore said. “Finding a little corner that may be diverse — it’s huge. It’s huge for us.”

The crisis behind the closures

Even the people actively working to push the consolidation plans forward acknowledge the entire process is unfortunate.

Josie Plaut, the associate director of Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment, who was hired to guide the consolidation, said as much at a school board meeting in March.

“This seems like a wicked problem where there’s probably not a single solution set that causes no discomfort for anyone in our community,” Plaut said, shortly before revealing the draft consolidation scenarios.

At that meeting, Plaut said school enrollment had been declining even as the general population of Larimer County was booming.

“People are moving here, and they’re not coming with families and school-aged children,” she said. “Empty seats in the district are largely due to this trend where people are having fewer children.”

The district projects enrollment will continue to decline by an additional 9.26% over the next five years.

According to Poudre School District Chief Information Officer Madelin Novey, the district can’t absorb the enrollment declines without acting.

“Because our budgets are driven by per pupil funding, that means a declining budget across our district” Novey said.

The district is currently experiencing a $26 million annual deficit, including a roughly $12 million deficit in annual per-pupil funding compared to the 2019-2020 school year, due to dropping enrollment.

Compounding the problem, the population has shifted within Poudre School District. Fewer families with school-age children are now living in Fort Collins. Meanwhile, families have been flocking to more rural communities like Timnath and Wellington, causing an enrollment boom on the east side of the district.

A Facilities Planning Steering Committee, comprised largely of parents and district staff, formed earlier this year to develop recommendations for addressing those issues. They developed a set of draft scenarios that would consolidate some schools and adjust enrollment boundaries to rebalance school populations elsewhere in order to save money and better use the districts resources.

The community pushes back

Lilian Moore speaks at a Poudre School District public listening session on April 16, 2024. The 10-year-old came to the meeting to voice her opposition to plans to close down some locals schools, including the one she attends. (Rae Solomon/KUNC)

Community opposition to the plans has been sustained and forceful. Last fall, students at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School staged a walkout to protest an initial school closure proposal that threatened to shut down their school.

This spring, thousands of community members weighed in on the Facilities Planning Steering Committee’s proposals through surveys and during several public meetings.

Many participants questioned the need to shut down any schools and opposed attempts to do so.

“We shouldn’t have to fight to save our neighborhood schools before all other options are exhausted,” Lopez Elementary School parent Jamie Forde said at the April 16 listening session.

Another parent at the meeting, Kasey Reyling, echoed the sentiment.

“We are asking you to stop this process and determine better ways of addressing declining enrollment and budget issues besides closing neighborhood schools,” she said.

Many parents at the meetings also questioned how the district is managing its current budget, calling out apparent excesses and wasteful spending to be addressed before any schools are closed. They complained the process has been too rushed, leaving only a few weeks for the public to digest the proposed solutions before the school board takes a final vote on how to move forward.

According to John Robinson, president of the Poudre Education Association, district staff also have concerns about the plans.

“This concept of consolidation and how it is played out over the school year has caused a lot of stress and anxiety for our educators,” Robinson said. “They’re wondering, which school is going to be on the chopping block? And how will that impact their job?”

Many community members have argued the consolidation plans are based on incorrect data and enrollment projections. They challenge the 9.26% enrollment drop projections the district furnished, pointing to forecasts from the State Demography Office that suggest the population dip will be much more modest in the near term and ultimately reverse itself to resume growth before the end of the decade.

Robinson, who also serves on the Facilities Planning Steering Committee that developed the draft scenarios, shared the concerns about the data underlying the group’s work.

“That we’re going to need is to have the district somehow reconcile what our state demographers are saying,” Robinson said. “And really take an honest look at what actual projections moving forward five years would do.”

The district superintendent Brian Kinsgley didn’t respond to KUNC’s interview request, but district spokesperson Madeline Novey dismissed parental concerns about the long-term projections.

“The reality is that we have had students leave our district over the past several years,” Novey said. “And that is a reality that we must solve for now.”

Broad impacts

After hearing public feedback, the Facilities Planning Steering Committee is now revising their consolidation proposals. Regardless of the plan committee members land on, the impacts could be broad. The draft scenarios note that school consolidations will result in longer transportation times for many students, and pricey renovations would be required to convert, say, a middle school into a K-12 building, as some scenarios propose.

Inevitably, families of students with disabilities or who require additional resources will have to adjust to significant changes. Clare Neal is one example. A few years ago, she and her husband moved so their young daughter, who has physical and developmental delays, could attend Olander Elementary, a school that could accommodate her needs.

“We literally got her diagnosis on Friday and then put an offer on a house in in Olander’s attendance area on Sunday,” Neal recalled.

They chose the school because of its Integrated Learning Services program, which integrates students with disabilities into traditional classrooms rather than relegating them to separate learning environments. Neal said her daughter has thrived in that situation.

“We actually just went to a birthday party this weekend. It was from one of her classmates,” Neal said. “We rode up on our bicycle and all the kids started chanting her name, because they know her and they love her.”

Keeping that community intact for her daughter is a top priority for Neal. But Olander is another one of the schools up for closure in the draft scenarios.

Neal and her family would feel the loss deeply.

“We’re taking special need kids that need to be in their community, and we’re displacing them,” she said. “And then they’re not with their neighborhood friends.”

Final recommendations from the Facilities Planning Steering Committee are due May 7 and the school board’s vote on those recommendations will take place June 11. The approved changes will take effect at the start of the 2025-2026 school year.

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