Teachers, special educators at DPS face cuts amid declining enrollment and budget pressures

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
The Denver School of the Arts.

Dozens of Denver Public School teachers, including a team of special education instructors, are expected to lose their positions at the end of this school year, due to a constellation of budget pressures, including the end of federal pandemic funding.

It’s unclear how many schools will be impacted, but East High School, Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Hallett Academy, McAuliffe International School, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, and the Denver School of the Arts are among those with possible staff cuts.

Some educators are currently interviewing with school committees in a bid to keep their jobs. They’ll find out in a couple of weeks if they succeeded.  

The cuts, known as “reductions in building” or RIBs for short, happen every year. The number who lose positions fluctuates from year to year, but it can be in the hundreds.  The cuts have nothing to do with a teacher’s qualities. It happens because student enrollment is anticipated to drop next year, grant funding is lost or programming changes are planned.

Denver Public Schools’ enrollment growth is slowing in some areas because of a declining birthrate and families leaving to escape high housing costs.  Other schools are overflowing with students this year because of the unexpected arrival of new immigrant students.

Still, some parents and students are protesting the cuts. Parents at the Denver School of the Arts are alleging the budget-cutting process isn’t being followed according to rules. Parents are planning a school “sit-in” Friday morning, and students are planning a walk-out on Monday.

But there may be other reasons for the reductions this year

Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the district is taking a fiscally cautious approach for several reasons. 

First, it’s unclear how many of the 3,000 new immigrant arrivals will stay in the district for next year. DPS lost out on nearly $20 million in state funding from newcomers who came after the state’s official October count day that determines funding.

Second, after the pandemic, the state doled out money based on averages of students because so many students disappeared during the pandemic.

“What they're finding is that those students haven't come back,” he said. “We don't know if they've moved away, we don't know if they're just not going to school anymore.”

He said the state is returning to budgeting off of actual numbers of students.

It’s also the final year that schools can use federal COVID-19 education dollars from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER.

“DPS has taken a very cautious approach with ESSER funding and steadily phased out ESSER funding at schools over the last three years,” the district said in a statement.

Cutting of some of those ESSER funded programs took place Wednesday.

Critical service providers who help keep schools and students safe may be cut

Fifteen people on an inclusive practice team that provides support to special education students in regular classrooms received notice that their positions would be cut, said Gould.

He is also worried that a special team of prevention and therapeutic specialists may be on the chopping block. Those specialists say traditional social workers and psychologists are “inundated” with managing special needs students, crises and safety needs and can’t focus on prevention and intervention.  The team, currently funded by federal funds that will disappear next year, provides trauma specific care, substance use and mental health services focusing on prevention and intervention.

Team data show that substance use has gone down in all areas across schools since this team started in 2013. This team is also named as a part of the district’s recent long-term safety plan, developed after the East High School shooting.

“We’re seeing programs like this being cut. We're seeing classroom teachers being cut. We're seeing a lot of class sizes going up,” Gould said.

Meanwhile, for the tenured teachers who land on a RIB list, they’re guaranteed a teaching spot at some locations within DPS for one more school year, according to the district.

Lack of transparency at Denver School of the Arts?

Parents and teachers at one school in particular, the Denver School of the Arts, have complained about a lack of transparency in the process, which they allege isn't being followed as it should.

A personnel committee that can include two parents, part of each school’s collaborative school committee, is supposed to recommend which teachers will lose their positions, according to DCTA’s contract with the district.

“My concern is that the process laid out in the DCTA (Denver Classroom Teacher Association) teacher contracts is being violated,” said Caron Blanke, a parent whose children have attended DSA over the past 10 years. 

She said parents are also concerned that they’ve not been able to see a copy of the school budget, which is required. She alleges adequate notice wasn’t provided to the teachers who must interview to keep their jobs.

Student Jack Rasmussen, 16, said he recalls teachers learning the news last Friday and Monday this week.

“I had a few of my teachers break down in class, like teary eyed,” he said, adding that some were already being interviewed to keep their jobs this week.

In December, more than 100 parents signed a letter to DPS officials identifying several concerns about DSA’s administration.

Parents allege the reductions are happening because of “administrative bloat” at the school and poor financial decisions made by the school district. They say a small school, with about 1,000 students, should not have three full-time principals and two assistant principals.

At the collaborative school committee meeting on Monday, DSA high school principal Aspen Burkett said two of the administrators are paid for by the district.

“So those don’t actually affect our budget,” she said.

Parents also criticize the district for buying four buildings from the former Johnson & Wales University’s Denver campus for $30 million, with an additional $10 million for renovations. Rising construction fees have raised the cost.

The purchase was to allow the school to expand enrollment by about 600 students, especially among students of color. Students of color make up three-quarters of DPS’s student body, but less than a third of DSA’s. But current enrollment at the school has declined. One board member called the land purchase “short-sighted” and an “albatross around our neck.”

“People are furious,” said Blanke.  “They are not currently serving student’s needs, they're not currently supporting educators in what they need and they have absolutely no business expanding.”

Other parents and teachers declined to speak to the media because of fear of retaliation.

Burkett and DPS officials did not provide comment to CPR by publishing time.

“None of this is easy,” said Burkett at a collaborative school committee meeting Monday, which is open to the public. “Unfortunately we are sitting in times where declining enrollment in our district is a real thing.”

Meanwhile, teacher cuts are expected in history, social studies, language arts, and the video cinema departments, according to a presentation.

Rasmussen was one of the students who has started petitions opposing the pending cuts, which have gathered more than a 1,000 signatures.

He said he worries he may lose three or four of his teachers. He’s mostly upset that his video and cinema teacher, a 25-year veteran, could lose her job.

“She's just a great person. She's always so nice. She always helps me with my work. She's been almost like a role model to me.”

He said his classmates are “sad and upset” and plan to make their feelings known during a Monday walk out.

The entire DPS budget, meanwhile, is expected to be presented to the board of education in May.