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Poudre School District plans to close schools amid budget struggles. District leaders have netted big pay bumps.

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FORT COLLINS — One after another, parents, teachers and even elementary schoolers stepped up to a microphone in the auditorium of Poudre High School on Tuesday evening to voice messages that were sometimes sharp, other times articulated through tears, about widespread fears around plans to close schools.

Their audience: Poudre School District R-1 board members and Superintendent Brian Kingsley, who listened as speakers, many of them clad in “red for ed,” demanded they take more time to decide how to consolidate schools, expressed how central their neighborhood schools have become to their families and accused a panel of leaders of pitting school communities against one another.

Budgets slimmed by declining enrollment are forcing Poudre School District leaders to consider closing schools starting in fall 2025 — a decision that has stirred up anguish and anger among many families whose schools are at risk of shuttering. 

Meanwhile, some Fort Collins parents and teachers question the district’s financial priorities after district cabinet members have received pay increases of up to 17%, first reported by The Coloradoan.

“From what we’ve heard at the most recent school board meeting, the finances have been a problem for 10 years and yet you have let the upper administration and cabinet bloat instead of trimming at the top with the least amount of harm to kids,” Alisa Hicks, a teacher at Cache La Poudre Middle School and a parent of two students at Poudre High School and two graduates, told board members and district leaders during a Tuesday evening listening session. “Every choice we’ve been given for cutting the budget has been where kids are directly and adversely affected.”

Like many districts throughout the state, Poudre School District — which has just over 29,900 students in preschool through 12th grade — has been caught in a cycle of declining enrollment mainly stemming from lower birth rates. That downward trend has amplified budget challenges since the state largely distributes funding to districts based on the number of students they educate.

District officials say fewer kids showing up to classrooms has set the stage for smaller classes in the foreseeable future, starting with about 400 fewer kindergarteners this school year — down to about 1,600 students from a typical enrollment of about 2,000. The district currently has about 6,000 open seats across several elementary and middle schools. The district projects its schools could face a 10% decline in student enrollment over the next several years. 

“None of us wants to be in this place,” district spokesperson Madeline Novey told The Colorado Sun. “We acknowledge that there is a lot of discomfort in sitting in the unknown and that this is a really difficult process. It’s emotional, and it’s emotional because our families and our communities care deeply about our schools.”

“And the reality is we have not addressed this prior to now as a district because we know it’s so hard,” Novey added.

Data from the state demographer’s office — which analyzes birth data by county — shows that the number of births in Larimer County peaked in 2007, when 3,500 babies were born. The number of annual births in the county has continued to drop since then, hitting a low of 3,025 births in 2021, according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

Poudre School District Superintendent Brian Kingsley (right) listens alongside school board members to parents, teachers and students raising concerns over what many view as a hasty push to consolidate schools as the district faces declining enrollment. The school district held a listening session April 16, 2024, at Poudre High School in Fort Collins so community members could give feedback on the prospect of closing schools. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Will the number of births continue shrinking in the future?

“That’s everybody’s question,” Garner said.

However, she expects the number of births in Larimer County to begin rebounding because counties like Larimer County are continuing to grow, with young adults — the age group that tends to have babies — moving in.

Garner predicts that births in Larimer County will hit 4,200 by 2037.

Schools will absorb the impacts of the slowdown in births from the past 17 years, with lower enrollment in the immediate future, she said. The district could easily see lower enrollment through 2030 before it begins to tick upward, Garner said, “but only if we start to see those births creep back up.”

“Migration is an uncertainty, and because that’s an uncertainty, so are the births,” she said. 

Garner said the district’s projected 10% drop in enrollment in the coming years could be accurate, but said it’s hard to know because of all the factors at play. Much of how student enrollment shakes out will also depend on what types of homes are built in the area as well as whether families opt for home-schooling, private school or another district.

“These guys work so hard to get it right,” she said. “It is impossible to know for sure.”

First, chaos. Now, collaboration.

As part of its efficiency planning for facilities and staffing, Poudre School District has targeted a need to serve about 350 to 400 kids in each of its elementary schools. Meanwhile, some of its elementary schools educate no more than 250 students, according to Novey. 

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