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Douglas County School District addressing declining enrollment and teacher shortage

Superintendent Erin Kane sat down with Denver7's Nicole Brady
Erin Kane
Posted at 12:34 PM, Feb 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-10 14:39:07-05

In the last month, the Douglas County School District has initiated discussions about declining enrollment in some schools, and plans to eventually pair some small schools together. It's the latest district to address issues with small schools because of declining birthrates and changing demographics.

DCSD is also working to retain teachers and recruit new teachers with creative solutions. One proposal would build rental housing on district owned property in Meridian Village, near Parker.

Denver7 Morning Anchor Nicole Brady sat down with Douglas County School District Superintendent Erin Kane to talk about how the district is starting to plan for long-term challenges.

Douglas County School District addressing declining enrollment, teacher shortage

Nicole Brady: We want to talk about the reality that so many school districts are facing right now, having to close and consolidate some schools because of the demographic changes that are happening. We know birth rates on the whole are declining. Douglas County has some interesting demographic factors specific to different communities within the district. Can you talk a little bit about that big picture? What's going on in Highlands Ranch, in Sterling ranch?

Erin Kane: We have a unique challenge in Douglas County, because we're dealing with declining enrollment in our older communities, but we also have pockets of tremendous growth. So we have both sides of that coin, and we need to kind of deal with it in one strategic way. If you think of what we call our north planning area, which is Highlands Ranch, Castle Pines, Sterling Ranch, which is being built to the west of Highlands Ranch, and the Canyons at Ridgegate East, those areas are experiencing tremendous growth. And they aren't just new little neighborhoods, they are massive communities that are the size of Castle Pines, or half the size of Highlands Ranch. And we have all these elementary schools where the declining enrollment is, but we need to be able to provide elementary schools in those newer communities. So what we're beginning to do is engage in a discussion with our community over growth and decline. Because they’re two sides of the same coin, we have to deal with both of those realities. Highlands Ranch, for example, is a wonderful community that people moved to 20 to 25 years ago. And they're still there, people like me, who moved there 20 years ago, with very, very young children, and put their young children through our school system and their kids are maybe now in high school or in college or beyond college. And the families are still living in their homes in that area. Which means those elementary schools haven't had new little kids replace the ones that grew up there.

We're not in an emergency situation at this point. But we are in a place where we need to plan proactively. I don't want to be making snap decisions when we're in a truly emergency situation, because we have such small schools. So what we want to really do is plan for the future of our community. And look ahead and think about the Highlands Ranch area, where would it make sense to pair some of our schools so that we can maximize opportunities for kids. At the end of the day schools that are really, really small, or schools that are overflowing, both sides of that have a lot of challenges in terms of opportunities for our students. A school with an overflowing population has large class sizes, has to use mobiles, which we know is not ideal, has some limits to programming, because there just isn't the space. Schools that really small struggle with staffing. And in those new communities, we want to make sure that those new communities have access to elementary schools the same way that I did when I moved into Douglas County 22 years ago with my young family.

NB: Some of these newer communities, like Sterling Ranch, there are few if any elementary schools there, is that correct?

EK: Just to give you some numbers, Highlands Ranch has 38,000 homes and 18 Elementary Schools. Sterling Ranch is planned to have 13,000 homes, it's about 16 percent built out now, and we have no elementary schools at all. (A school) was actually planned as part of our bond initiative that we ran last November and that we may have to try to run again this November to ensure that those families have access to at least one elementary school.

NB: Let me ask you, as you watch perhaps Jeffco and Denver schools make decisions about closing schools, have you learned anything from the approaches they've taken?

EK: First of all, these are never easy discussions. And I don't want to criticize the way other districts have handled it because these are really, really hard things to do. I will talk about a few of the steps that we feel are necessary. One is truly planning ahead. We're looking to make a 3-to-5 year plan. We’re not looking to do any pairings of schools next year, so that our families and our staff have plenty of notice as far as what the plan will be and what it will look like. Two, we want staff to know that because Douglas County is in the position of decline and growth, there is a job for everyone. So we want to make sure that our staff know that as we're looking at pairing schools in the next three to five years, that no staff member, not a single staff member will lose their position in Douglas County Schools. The other thing I think that we've really gleaned is how challenging it is when you split a school community in half, and send half of a school community to one place and half to another. And so our conversation is really about pairing schools, bringing two really small communities together as one larger community to maximize the opportunities that they have for students.

NB: Do you think parents will look at their school population and try to glean from that, will my school likely close in three years? Or will it be one of these schools that gets paired with another school? Have you started to look at any potential schools that will close?

EK: So the first step in our process is really engaging with our community and talking to them about this growth and decline challenge, why it's a challenge and why looking forward, it's going to increasingly become a challenge. The first thing we have to do is help everyone understand that we do have some decisions we have to make, but most importantly, why. So that's the first part of our engagement before we even talk about specific schools or specific pairings that's a little later in the process. Of course, people are going to speculate, but we aren't speculating. At my level right now, we are really looking at discussing with our community why this is a challenge. When we get to the place where we're talking about potential pairings, we're going to do that with our staff and our community as well.

NB: And just to be clear, when you say a 3-to-5 year plan, that would mean no schools would be paired until the school year that starts in 2026?

EK: Correct, the earliest would be the 2026-2027. school year. So we do have some time here. But we want to make sure again, that we use it well and that we engage and do it with our community and have plenty of planned time for our staff and for our families.

NB: And is the district only looking at elementary schools at this point?

EK: Yes, we are only looking at elementary schools. If you look at our district, traditionally our families have had access to a local neighborhood elementary school. We haven't typically bussed students really far away to get to an elementary school. Middle school and high school is a different story. We can bus kids and we have out throughout our history in Douglas County. So really, we're talking about elementary schools. For our middle schools and high schools, at least for the next three to five years, we're certain that we can look at boundaries and be able to balance those as well as we can.

NB: You point out that there are jobs for teachers, maybe too many jobs, not enough teachers. I know that recruiting teachers has been a major goal. What efforts are happening to shore up teacher pay?

EK: Well, shoring up teacher pay is really challenging without a change in our mill levy override, however, we are doing a number of retention strategies. We're really focusing on making sure that we hold on to the teachers and staff that we have. And we've put in place some short term retention strategies that we're really excited about. And I just want to be clear for our taxpayers the way we're paying for these short term retention strategies is because of the labor shortage and the teacher shortage. We have had empty positions this school year, so positions that we budgeted for, but were unable to fill because of the labor shortage. We're taking that budget capacity just for this school year, and investing it into short term retention strategies. The staff who are with us this year, and return with us next year, will receive a $2,000 retention bonus in September of next year. Whether they are a teacher, a principal or a custodian, transportation staff, everyone will receive a $2,000 retention bonus. We're adding a personal day to everyone's balance in July. Again, it's a little thing we can do with one-time money. We are also investing in tuition reimbursement this year. So helping our teachers and our staff with getting tuition reimbursement when they choose to pursue education that will help them in their job in the district. And again, all of those things are uses of one-time money that we have because of the labor shortage. We do know that we will get more revenue from the state as will every school district, and we will use that additional revenue to give modest raises going into next school year, as will every school district. So while that will help us keep our teachers, it's also really important to understand that while their pay will move up modestly, so will other districts pay and that gap between us will remain until we're able to solve our mill levy override challenge.

EK: We know that our teachers who are starting out , our starting pay right now is $43,680. A teacher who makes that kind of money cannot live in Douglas County really can't live anywhere near Douglas County. And that's got to change. We want to make sure that our teachers and staff can live where they work. It's really important. It's important for our kids, it's important for our community. So we're looking at creative ways to use land that the district has, that we know we won't build schools on in areas where we just don't need another school, and to use that land to work with a developer in order to create housing that our teachers and staff can access for rent they can afford.

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