School District 11 covers the residential heart of Colorado Springs, but in recent years, many of the district’s schools and the neighborhoods around them have been suffering.
Whether the ailing schools affected the neighborhoods or vice versa, no one really knows.
What is certain, however, is that the downward spiral has resulted in a string of commercial real estate vacancies, comparatively lower home values and plummeting student levels.
It’s an example of how the health of school districts and the real estate in them are inextricably tied together.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Colorado Springs City Councilor Tim Leigh, who owns Hoff & Leigh, a commercial real estate firm. “When you cross Woodmen Road (out of District 11 into Academy District 20), the whole world changes. The commercial rents are much higher and there’s twice the property tax. There’s definitely a link.”
He said neighborhood changes are simply a matter of demographics.
Houses have aged and so have the strip malls along once-vibrant Academy Boulevard, which runs through the heart of D-11. The district roughly reaches from Airport Road north to Dublin Boulevard and from Manitou Springs east to Powers Boulevard.
Families have moved to new neighborhoods to the north and east, and the shopping has followed them, leaving the middle of Colorado Springs with vacancy issues in its schools and retail space.
District 11’s enrollment has dropped 14 percent in the past decade. That adds up to more than 7,000 empty seats in its 60 schools, said D-11 board member Al Loma.
The board approved a plan last month to close two elementary schools — Bates Elementary at 702 Cragmor Road, and Lincoln Elementary at 2727 N. Cascade Ave. — and to turn Wasson High School at 2115 Afton Way at Constitution Avenue and North Circle Drive, into a school that houses its alternative education programs.
It’s a move that has drawn heated criticism and prompted a recall petition against six of the seven board members. The El Paso County clerk rejected the petition for minor language discrepancies, but expects the petition to be corrected and re-filed.
Just this year, the district lost 516 students — the biggest enrollment drop in the state. The loss is about $3.5 million in state per-pupil funding. Meanwhile Academy District 20 grew by 317 students.
“The demographics say if we don’t do something we will die,” Loma said.
Those demographics in the central part of the city that District 11 serves have changed. And that has impacted the real estate market in the area, which has affected the schools even more.
The population within three miles of Wasson High School, which was only 52 percent utilized, declined 0.26 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to data from Sierra Commercial Real Estate, which pulls demographics information for clients, especially those considering investment in retail properties.
By contrast, the population within three miles of Academy District 20’s Pine Creek High School, near the intersection of Powers Boulevard and Interquest Parkway, increased 4.7 percent during the same period. Within three miles of Falcon District 49’s Sand Creek High School, near Peterson Road and North Carefree Circle, the population grew 4.37 percent.
Not only is the population decreasing in District 11, it’s aging. More than 18 percent of the population within a mile of Wasson is 65 or older. Only 7.5 percent of the population within a mile of Sand Creek and 6.2 percent near Pine Creek are 65 or older.
A higher percentage of the populations near Pine Creek and Sand Creek include school-age children. More than 30 percent of the population living within a mile of Pine Creek is between 5 and 19 years old, compared to 17.7 percent within a mile of Wasson.
It makes sense that the population wouldn’t be growing in the center of the city, said Ben Lowe, director of research for Sierra Commercial Real Estate. It’s mature. There aren’t a lot of places to build new homes in the central part of the city.
City planner Steve Tuck said it seems young families still want new single-family homes with big yards near new shopping centers and new schools. That’s why the city keeps creeping to the north and east.
The average District 11 school building is 45 years old, according to a report from the district. And the shopping centers in the area are old, too. Nearly all of them were built before 1995. Sierra Commercial’s north central region, which sits squarely in District 11, has more old retail stock than any other part of the city with about 2 million square feet. And 22 percent of it is vacant.
“The D-11 area completely overlaps the central commercial area where our retail plight is,” Lowe said. “Retailers are vacating the central region and continuing to spread north and east.”
An additional 85,820 square feet emptied out during the fourth quarter of 2012.
The retailers are just doing what they’ve always done, Lowe said. They’re following the rooftops and the demographics.
While there’s still a substantial central population, it doesn’t have the spending power the north and eastern populations do.
Within a mile of Wasson, 15.6 percent of the population earns less than $15,000 a year. Within a mile of Sand Creek, fewer than 1 percent of the population makes that little and within a mile of Pine Creek, only 3.9 percent of the population makes less than $15,000.
Also, within a mile of Pine Creek, 84.2 percent of the population makes $50,000 or more a year, compared to 47.1 percent within a mile of Wasson.
Those figures are reflected in the schools. Sixteen of D-11’s 60 schools are considered Title 1, meaning at least 40 percent of the enrollment lives below poverty — $23,050 for a family of four. District-wide, 53 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 44 percent five years ago.
Add to those numbers the open enrollment law, which allows children to attend any school outside of their school boundary, and the district has found itself with thousands more empty seats in classrooms.
Residential Realtor Bobbi Rupp said families always used to come to her requesting homes near specific schools.
“If they have more money to spend, they automatically say they want District 20 or (Cheyenne Mountain) District 12,” Rupp said.
That’s happening less now that school choice and charter schools are more common, she said. But it always used to be one of the most important criteria for homebuyers.
Tom Binnings, economist and partner with Summit Economics said schools have long been and continue to be a driving factor in real estate choices.
“Strong elementary schools and strong school districts have a price premium associated with them,” Binnings said. “Conversely, in neighborhoods that don’t have the same value rating of education — and it could be cultural, in that case — there is less of a demand factor.”
Homes in D-11 are among the cheapest when compared with districts 12, 20 and 49. The Pikes Peak Association of Realtors reports that the average sales price of a District 11 home in 2012 was $167,717 compared to $262,428 in District 12 and $184,875 in District 20. However, homes in fast-growing District 49 were less expensive at $162,711.
“Parents do their research before they come to us,” said Realtor George Nehme. “They know what they want.”
Online research at GreatSchools.com, ranks District 12 and 20 schools among the highest. There are a couple of District 11 schools in the mix, one from District 49 and several charter schools.
If school reputation and online rankings continue to factor into home-buying decisions and people continue to favor newer construction, District 11 could continue to see declining enrollment.
See part II of this series here.
60 schools; of those 16 have at least 40 percent of the student body living below poverty (less than $23,050 a year for a family of four); district-wide, 53 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, up from 44 percent five years ago.
29,000 students, down 14 percent from 10 years ago. Hispanic students make up 29 percent, up from 22 percent five years ago; white students make up 53 percent, down from 62 percent five years ago.
16 charter schools within the district’s boundaries
School building average age: 45 years old
1 in 3 students attend a school other than their neighborhood school.
Percentage of households with incomes within a mile of these schools
Income Pine Creek Rampart Sand Creek Wasson
<15,000 3.9 3.4 0.7 15.6
$15,000-25,000 1.9 3.3 4 9.9
$25,000-$35,000 3.9 6.4 6.3 9.6
$35,000-50,000 6.1 12.3 14.8 18
$50,000-$75,000 17.5 23.7 32 19.3
$75,000-100,000 17.5 17.3 20.7 12.9
$100,000-$150,000 27.5 25.7 16.1 9.5
$150,000-$200,000 11.2 6.2 4 2.8
>$200,000 10.5 1.9 1.5 2.6
Total making 84.2 74.8 74.3 47.1
$50,000 or more
Monica Mendoza contributed to this story.