An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early on Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students participated in remote learning during the pandemic. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

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By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado

Denver’s first school board in recent history to be backed entirely by the teachers union renewed the district’s contracts with 16 charter schools Thursday, despite some members expressing concerns with the independent public schools.

Board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán was the only one of seven board members to vote “no” on renewing the charter contracts, though board Vice President Tay Anderson characterized his “yes” vote as a reluctant one. Board member Scott Baldermann voted for the renewals but said the board should undertake “a full review” of its charter renewal policy.

This was among the board’s first major decisions since three new members, including Gaytán, were elected in November. All seven members are now united in their criticism of education reform, a set of strategies favored by past school boards that included closing struggling district-run schools and expanding high-performing charter school networks. The teachers union has also been critical of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

But most board members spoke neutrally about charter schools Thursday, neither praising nor condemning them. They said they had faith in Superintendent Alex Marrero’s recommendations for renewing the charters’ contracts for periods ranging from two to five years depending on the strength of the schools’ academic performance, culture, and financial health.

Several board members referenced Denver Public Schools’ declining enrollment, and thanked the charter school community for a recent commitment to participate in a districtwide process to develop criteria for when to close or consolidate small schools. Anderson said in an interview that he was planning to vote against some of the renewals but changed his mind after the charter schools agreed to participate in consolidation talks.

“For me personally, that was my line in the sand,” he said. “When I saw them make the good-faith effort to say, ‘We’re willing to come to the table,’ that says a whole lot for me.”

Denver schools are funded based on how many students they have. Previously, high enrollment made it easier to support a large number of schools, including new charter schools, but now Denver faces financial pressure to close small schools. While some charter schools already have closed because they had too few students, some community members have said it’s wrong to consider closing district-run schools without looking at charters through the same lens.

But the school board can’t close charter schools solely for enrollment reasons as it can with district-run schools. That decision is up to the charter schools themselves.

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