Littleton Public Schools mulls closing some elementaries

Board to decide on Moody/East merger; housing prices drive families away, superintendent says

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/14/21

Littleton Public Schools officials are drawing closer to a decision on how to consolidate two north Littleton elementary schools, part of long-term efforts that will likely see the district's 13 …

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Littleton Public Schools mulls closing some elementaries

Board to decide on Moody/East merger; housing prices drive families away, superintendent says

Posted

Littleton Public Schools officials are drawing closer to a decision on how to consolidate two north Littleton elementary schools, part of long-term efforts that will likely see the district's 13 elementary schools reduced to 10 in the face of declining enrollment districtwide.

The LPS school board is scheduled to decide by the end of March how to merge Moody and East elementaries, which sit just over a mile apart on either side of Ketring Park.

The move is possible thanks to better-than-expected sales of bonds following a 2018 bond measure that sought to raise $298 million to rebuild or renew schools across the district.

So far the bond has funded the construction of the new Dr. Justina Ford elementary on the former Ames elementary campus in southeast Littleton, a new elementary school on the Franklin campus that will absorb both Franklin and Highland Elementary students, and a new building to replace Newton Middle School.

Now, sitting on a roughly $60 million premium on bond sales, district officials say they have the funds to build another elementary school.

'There comes a point where we have to'

The idea of combining Moody and East has been floated for years, said Superintendent Brian Ewert. Both schools, built in the midst of the baby boom of the mid-1950s, were built for hundreds more students than they serve today — each school has fallen below 300 students in recent years, district figures show.

“When you have schools that small, you can't run them efficiently,” Ewert said. There simply aren't enough physical education, music, STEM or special education teachers to go around. “We can't provide complete programming. It's very emotional to close small neighborhood schools, but there comes a point where we have to.”

Whether Moody and East will be combined is not in question. At issue is whether to build a new school building on either the East or Moody campus to replace the existing facilities. Once the site is decided upon, students would likely be relocated to Twain Elementary until construction is complete, planned for fall 2023.

The new school would cost roughly $35-40 million, Ewert said, and would be built with a capacity of up to 650 students, but would likely open with 500-550 students. The district does not anticipate any layoffs associated with the merger, he said.

District officials say they have no plans to demolish whichever school does not receive the new building, saying mothballed schools are valuable assets for other uses or can be reopened if necessary.

Both LPS administration and the district's long-range planning committee, composed of community members, recommended to the school board to build the new school on the Moody campus, citing in part its centralized location in what would become the combined East-Moody catchment, and its greater pedestrian safety farther from busy thoroughfares. A feasibility study also found that East would have to be demolished before construction on a new school could begin, but Moody could remain standing while a new facility is built concurrently.

'More similar than different'

Though close in proximity, the two schools exhibit socioeconomic differences: Nearly two-thirds of East students are enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program, compared to about a quarter of Moody students.

Districtwide, East is second to only nearby Field Elementary in students on free and reduced lunch. The school also serves a sizable immigrant population.

Opinions were divided at a March 10 community meeting held at Moody, with parents advocating to the school board for either Moody or East to receive the new facility.

One mother, speaking through a Spanish translator, said she is concerned that building the school at Moody will put low-income and immigrant families at East at a disadvantage.

“Take into consideration how close those families live to East,” she said. “Many of them don't have the resources to pick up their kids if they get sick or want to do after-school activities.”

Her daughter is in the special education program at East, she said, and she fears her little girl could suffer from the upheaval, especially following previous life changes when moving from Venezuela to Miami before coming to Colorado.

“My daughter has developed so much in her learning,” she said. “Remember how hard it can be for a child with more needs to move.”

Another mother speaking in Spanish through a translator told the board she lives in the Moody catchment but open-enrolls at East, which has a higher Latino population. She said soon after she moved into the neighborhood, a neighbor knocked on her door — not to welcome her to the neighborhood, but to warn her against parking in front of his house.

“I felt very unwelcome,” she said. “There aren't many people who look like me in this neighborhood. My fear is I don't want that kind of experience for kids from East (if the new school is built at Moody).”

Jennifer Flynn, who heads the PTO at Moody, said she is frustrated that the process so far has seemingly pitted Moody and East families against one another in advocacy for their neighborhood schools.

“We will mix well together, but this process has been detrimental,” Flynn said. “We're both under a lot of stress. There's a perception that Moody is a more privileged community, that everyone here can drive their kids to school, but that's simply not the case. Lower-income and heavily-impacted families have less opportunity to participate in this process ... A lot of the Moody community feels like we can't speak out, because if we do, it seems like we don't care about East. But we're more similar than different. Moody is just a more centralized location.”

'Hardships in both communities'

Speaking at a school board meeting the following night, President Jack Reutzel lamented that the process can feel like a school-versus-school endeavor at times.

“There will be hardships in both communities,” he said. “Those inequities in large part can be solved.”

If Moody is selected, the decision will likely result in the closure of the school's preschool, part of a longer-term trend of consolidating or closing preschools around the district. Several parents at the community meeting spoke out against the preschool closure, but Ewert told Colorado Community Media the writing is on the wall for site-based preschools scattered around the district.

“We're not the only preschool provider in town,” he said. “We want to move to a centralized program for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness. That way we can provide better access to special education, social workers — a full menu. That can't happen in numerous smaller programs.”

The Moody/East decision is just one of several consolidation plans the board will undertake in coming months.

District administration and the long-range planning committee have also recommended consolidating Twain Elementary into either Hopkins Elementary or the new school on the Franklin campus, and consolidating Peabody Elementary into either Lenski Elementary or the new school on the Franklin campus.

Both of those proposals have been met with community opposition, with parents and advocates sometimes staging protests outside the district administration building before board meetings.

Home prices are key factor

Declining enrollment continues to present a serious hurdle to keeping small schools open, Ewert said, not just in terms of spreading out thin staff resources, but a slump in per-pupil funding.

District enrollment fell to 13,700 in the 2020-2021 school year, district figures show, down nearly 9% from the more than 15,000 students enrolled in 2012. The proportion of the drop is even greater at the elementary level, down 12.7% since 2012.

The decline sped up in 2020, with more than 750 students leaving the district, driven in part by a statewide wave of students lost to homeschooling or to private schools that stayed fully open to in-person learning through the pandemic.

Littleton's long-term student decline is driven partly by slowing birth rates, but largely by high housing prices and low inventory, Ewert said.

“Young families can move to Aurora, Northglenn or even Highlands Ranch and get a lot more square footage for their money,” he said. “And people in Littleton stay in single-family homes even long after their kids move away. Not to mention it's a landlocked district. Even new high-density construction doesn't tend to result in a lot of new kids.

Littleton's median housing price sat just shy of $600,000 in February, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors, up 14.4% from a year prior, and nearly double the figure just seven years ago.

The number of households with young children in Littleton fell to 24% in 2018, down from 29% in 2010, according to a housing study commissioned by Littleton City Council.

The report also found Littleton has a deficit of thousands of units of workforce housing, and said that of 18 industries examined by the study, only professionals in oil and gas can afford a median-priced house on a single median income in Littleton.

“People say kids will come back,” Ewert said. “We have no evidence that will happen.”

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