Denver Public Schools could turn an old elementary school into teacher housing

Rosedale neighbors balked at DPS’s idea, arguing that the building should be a school again.

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

The old Rosedale Elementary school sits empty and aging atop a hill in south Denver. Since the school board shuttered it in 2005 to save money, its sparse playground has rusted, its xeriscape garden has turned to weeds and the steps leading to the school’s locked doors have cracked and become carpeted in creeping vines.

Last month, Denver Public Schools officials pitched an idea to the neighborhood to convert Rosedale into teacher housing. In a gentrifying city where the average home price is now more than half a million dollars, offering teachers a place to live could help stem the tide of highly qualified recruits who take jobs elsewhere because they’re scared off by the high cost of living, said Liz Mendez, the district’s director of operations support services.

But the Rosedale neighbors balked at DPS’s idea, arguing that the building should be a school again.

On Thursday, the school board is set to consider a resolution pledging to “actively explore” solutions to the affordable housing crunch, including using its own real estate. However, Mendez said the district is now reassessing using Rosedale for that purpose in light of the neighborhood concerns.

The school board got a first look at the resolution at a work session last week.

“We are not housing developers,” said board member Lisa Flores. “We are educators.”

And yet, she said, the district is also a billion-dollar public institution and must consider that, too.

“It’s important for us to look at what role we can play as an advocate for increased development of affordable housing, but also what assets do we have … to further foster that development.”

DPS, where about three-quarters of students are kids of color, has especially struggled to hire teachers who reflect its students. While the district doesn’t have a count of how many applicants turn down jobs because of sticker shock, officials say anecdotal evidence shows it’s happening.

The base salary for a first-year Denver teacher with a bachelor’s degree this year starts at $41,389, though teachers can earn incentives and bonuses on top of that.

A lack of affordable housing for teachers isn’t just a problem in Denver. School districts across Colorado and nationwide are searching for ways to ensure educators can afford to live in the community where they teach in the hopes of providing more stability in the classroom.

DPS officials made their case to Rosedale neighbors at a pair of August meetings sponsored by the neighborhood association. The meetings were crowded with what retiree and association president Bev Cox described as “untold numbers of strollers and crying babies.” Neighborhood demographics are shifting, she said, as senior citizens sell their homes to young families.

“If you walk the park anytime of the day or early evening, there are mothers or nannies” with children in tow, said Cox, who counts five young kids on her street alone.

District officials didn’t reveal a specific plan for repurposing Rosedale, but rather said DPS would solicit ideas from developers for how best to build teacher housing there.

Some neighbors had a different request: reopen a school on the site. Right now, many neighborhood kids attend Asbury Elementary a mile away. Others choice into McKinley-Thatcher Elementary, which is nearly two miles away.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of us. We’d love to have a school in Rosedale,’” Cox said.

But Mendez said reopening Rosedale “hasn’t made sense from building cost perspective or what could fit in there.” With just 12 classrooms and the capacity for 150 to 200 students, it would be DPS’s smallest elementary school, she said.

Because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, small schools struggle to hire staff to teach a robust selection of electives, Mendez said. That causes students to go elsewhere, which further shrinks the schools’ budgets and exacerbates the problem, she said.

Plus, an architect assessment done in 2015 found the school would need more than $8 million in repairs to bring it up to code, according to the presentation given at the meetings. The district has not provided even a ballpark estimate on how much it would cost to convert the building into teacher housing.

As for the new families moving to the neighborhood, DPS officials say they have a solution. The district is planning to build five to seven more classrooms onto McKinley-Thatcher. The classrooms could accommodate up to 150 students and building them would “require minimal investment from DPS,” according to the presentation. That’s because most of the cost could be covered by funds the district can receive as a result of the redevelopment of the former Gates Rubber Co. site near Broadway and Interstate 25.

While Cox said many neighbors fear DPS’s idea to convert Rosedale into teacher housing is a done deal, Mendez said the neighborhood reaction “has given us pause.”

“We’re pausing to reassess and make a decision based on input from the community,” she said.

The Denver teachers union also has concerns about the idea.

“Which teachers could stay there?” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “If you criticized the school district, would you be out? If you organized, if you took action they didn’t like, would you be out?”

The union’s board of directors hasn’t taken an official position, but Shamburg questioned how many teachers would be helped by a single housing complex. She agreed that the dearth of affordable housing for teachers is a problem but suggested a different solution.

“If we pay them better, they can afford their own housing,” Shamburg said.

She added that the school board’s resolution raises her suspicions about what else the district has in the works. She thinks it’s misspent energy. “How about the district spends more time figuring out its core mission, which is to educate kids?” she said.

The resolution says the board “affirms that the district’s top priority for use of property is for schools.” It also says research shows teacher quality is among the most important factors in improving student achievement and that housing prices are outpacing income growth in Denver. It mentions that DPS can learn from educator housing efforts in other expensive cities.

One of those efforts is exploring setting up shop here. Called Landed, the company was founded in San Francisco in 2015. It solicits investors and philanthropists to help teachers with 10 percent of the down payment on a house near the community where they work.

Alex Lofton, the company’s co-founder and head of growth, said Denver is one of Landed’s highest-priority targets for expansion and the one where it’s closest to becoming reality. The company is currently meeting with foundations to secure funding, he said.

“We are just really stoked as an organization to be seriously close to partnering with folks there,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place with an incredible can-do attitude, especially within the education sphere, and being solutions-oriented. That’s been really refreshing.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.