West Denver is getting more affordable housing — and more children — as DPS moves to close schools, memo shows

The Denver Housing Authority is projecting that redevelopment in a west Denver neighborhood will bring enough young children to keep open a school that Denver Public Schools is proposing to close due to low enrollment, according to a memo obtained by The Denver Post.

The Nov. 1 memo, which was shared with DPS officials and City Council members, notably highlights the growth expected in the Sun Valley neighborhood, where there are at least 11 housing projects either completed or planned and the number of elementary-aged students is projected to grow as soon as next year.

Questions also are being raised about a $4 million payment the district will get from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to improve schools in that neighborhood, according to the memo.

“The projection is that there will be residents and children in this neighborhood to sustain a school,” said Keo Frazier, spokeswoman for the Denver Housing Authority.

Fairview Elementary, which is in the neighborhood, is among the 10 schools DPS has recommended closing. The projections by the housing authority are notable because DPS, the state’s largest school district, has said its recommended school closures are the result of fewer students enrolling — and one of the primary criteria used in the decision is schools having fewer than 215 students.

The housing authority has built or is planning to build 970 units as part of the redevelopment of Sun Valley, which is projected to house hundreds of new residents — including 350 to 580 elementary-aged children, according to the memo,

Of those, 264 units will come available in January and a majority of those units have between two and five bedrooms. The Thrive building, which is part of the project, will also have space for an early childhood education center or after-school program and a family-focused resource room, according to the memo.

The memo largely focuses on Fairview Elementary and development in Sun Valley, but also notes that Colfax Elementary in the nearby West Colfax neighborhood might also close, but DHA plans to redevelop Westridge Homes nearby. That project includes 619 units, which is expected to bring in between 238 and 433 elementary-aged children, the memo said.

The projects in Sun Valley and Westridge Homes are “about reimagining and reinvesting to address historical disinvestment and support low and extremely low-income families who consistently experience challenges in accessing education, jobs and other services critical to upward mobility,” the memo stated.

If the school closure plan is approved by the school board on Nov. 17, then students who currently attend Fairview and Colfax will go to Cheltenham Elementary in the West Colfax neighborhood starting next school year.

An analysis by the housing authority also found “significant safety issues” on the highways around the redevelopment projects and the “roadways that elementary children would have to cross to get to Cheltenham,” the memo said.

“We can reevaluate and engage”

DPS said in a statement that it believes all of the students at Fairview can be accommodated at Cheltenham “for the foreseeable future,” but it also said that it is not planning to sell any of the buildings of any schools that the district ultimately decides to close.

“Therefore, if at a later time, the redevelopment project ends up producing more students than our current data forecasts, we can reevaluate and engage the community in a process to determine the best use of the Fairview facility,” DPS said in the statement.

Overall, enrollment in the district’s elementary schools has plunged by more than 6,400 students since 2014, the district said in a presentation it plans to give to the Board of Education on Thursday.

“The number of elementary students living in Denver and attending a DPS school has steadily declined since 2014 due to birth rates and families leaving the city,” the district said in the presentation.

In the area Denver City Council President Jamie Torres represents, DPS is looking to close three elementary schools: Eagleton, Colfax and Fairview. A year ago, the district had a longer list of proposed closures that included every elementary school in her district, Torres said.

West Denver isn’t adding new families fast enough to offset Denver’s skyrocketing cost of living, she said.

“I don’t think, given the entire conversation that we’re having in the city around gentrification and displacement in west Denver, that we can ignore the impact that is having on our ability to fill schools,” she said.

That said, Torres has seen the city housing authority’s memo to DPS. Promoting affordable housing construction in her district has been one of her top priorities and she feels that has been left out of DPS’s calculus around school closures.

“I think my community in particular is just struggling to understand how the decision was made for these schools,” Torres said. “It just feels like a lack of transparency.”

The housing authority sent the memo to the school district and “a conversation was had with DPS so that we could all be aligned on how we talk about this neighborhood,” Frazier said, adding that the two entities have been looking at different data projections.

“It’s important that we do this together,” she said.

“Where is it going to be spent?”

DPS already struck a deal with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to help finance infrastructure improvements in Sun Valley that will make way for the housing units DHA planned for the area.

In return for allowing DURA to retain property taxes that would have otherwise been dedicated to the school district and using that money to pay for roads, gutters and other infrastructure in Sun Valley, DPS will receive a $4 million payout from the urban renewal authority.

The reason for that payout, DURA development specialist Jeff Bader told the City Council last month, is “to offset the impact of the urban redevelopment plan on district services to this area.”

The DHA memo noted the $4 million payout, saying “that DPS analysis has not been publicly shared but will be requested and scrutinized to see if the math aligns with the DPS analysis that suggests the only school in the neighborhood (which directly abuts the URA) should be closed.”

The housing authority is already getting questions about the $4 million, according to the memo.

“If it is not being spent on improvements to Fairview, where is it going to be spent?” the memo asked.

The school district, which has not yet received the money, can use the $4 million to make improvements in any school that serves the area. For example, the money could go to North High School, DPS spokesman Scott Pribble said.

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