AURORA — A charter school teetering on the edge of bankruptcy was given a tentative lifeline Tuesday night by the city’s school board. But the Aurora Public Schools board stopped short of approving a one-year charter extension for AXL Academy.
While several board members aired their skepticism about granting a one-year extension to the school – its charter contract expires June 30 – the board unanimously agreed to allow the district and AXL more time to develop a plan that would close a $632,000 shortfall and set the charter school on a path toward fiscal and academic stability.
The board, which has been considered chilly to charter schools in the past, will review the plan and vote on a one-year charter contract extension as early as its Jan. 6 meeting.
The vote can’t come soon enough for the AXL community. Thanks to some budget crunching, it has just enough cash now to get through March 2.
The extra time is also a welcomed symbolic gesture of Aurora’s warming to charter schools, said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
“This board is interested in what’s in the best interest of children and their families,” Flood said after the meeting, pointing out that APS has also renewed two of its charters schools — Global Village and the Aurora Academy — this month. “They’re taking a broader view. They’re looking across their portfolio to make sure there are high quality options for their students.”
While AXL had originally asked for the district to establish a credit line for about $300,000, the school presented a new plan Tuesday asking the district to allow the school to run a deficit of about $175,000 this school year. That deficit would be wiped out by a projected surplus next year. The surplus would come from one-time funds promised by the legislature to all public schools, and an anticipated increase in per-pupil funding.
The new plan also relies on raising $150,000 from philanthropic foundations. And in keeping with the original plan, AXL would like APS to defer about $300,000 in service fees this school year, allowing the school to pay those over three years.
“We strongly believe that this process will create an AXL Academy that is strong, more effective, and most importantly, more responsible than ever before,” said Brent Reckman, a co-principal at AXL.
More than 100 AXL supporters squeezed into the modest APS board chambers. Six individuals — two parents, two teachers, and two students — spoke in favor of providing a contract extension to AXL.
“It isn’t a perfect school, but it is our school,” said Amber Malin, an AXL teacher whose child also attend the school.
Parents and teachers who spoke at the board meeting shared their renewed faith in AXL, which has experienced financial hardship before and has seen a dip in academic performance, according to state test score data.
“I feel more secure in the planning of AXL’s future than ever before,” said Heather Rivers, an AXL teacher.
Student Vance Manzanares said his teachers have inspired him to go to college since he was young.
“They want us to be great people — not just now, but especially when we grow up,” he said. “They always tell me to go for my dreams. I want to be an inventor. Not one of my teachers has told me that’s a bad idea. That’s why you’ll all be able to fly in 2025 with awesome rocket-propelled shoes.”
Board members and Superintendent Rico Munn, weighing the financial ramifications of its options, fired a series of questions at AXL’s leadership, financial consultant, and Lisa Flores from the Gates Family Foundation.
(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Gates Family Foundation.)
One of the most intense exchanges was between Munn and Flores.
Munn attempted to gauge the foundation’s willingness to support AXL and what the district and school would need to do to ensure for the foundation’s contribution. Flores said her foundation is interested in continuing its support of AXL, which it has done for many years, but explained she didn’t have the authority to pledge any dollar amount without approval from the foundation’s board of directors.
“What we’re looking for is everyone making a good faith effort to long-term planning,” Flores said.
Flores said she was impressed by how the school’s new leadership team was grappling with a number of challenges including food service, renegotiating the school’s lease, and student recruitment, but that several details still needed to be finalized, including how much time AXL would have to repay the $300,000 in fees that would be deferred this year.
Munn and his board of education agreed.
“I have to be honest, this is making me a little nervous,” said APS board member Amber Drevon. “Are you looking for donations in other places?”
AXL’s leaders said they were.
Board member Dan Jorgensen appeared pleased with the path Aurora and AXL were on.
“There’s nothing I can see as another approach,” said board member Dan Jorgensen.
But board member Eric Nelson wasn’t so optimistic.
“I’m really praying that you have a contingency plan,” he said.