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Aurora school board met illegally with Gates Foundation, charters

Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.
Nicholas Garcia

A majority of the Aurora Public Schools’ Board of Education met illegally April 29 with representatives from several national charter school networks and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a spokeswoman for the district confirmed Wednesday.

And now the suburban Denver school district is reviewing how it coordinates nontraditional board meetings.

“After reviewing our policies, we recognized there was an oversight and we should have posted a notice about the meeting,” said APS spokeswoman Georgia Duran. “I want to emphasize that we do take our responsibility to be open and transparent seriously.”

The Wednesday evening meeting was originally planned as a social event for APS staff and leaders from the charter networks. The representatives from the networks and the Gates Foundation were in town to discuss how charter schools could be used to improve academic performance in the academically struggling school district.

Superintendent Rico Munn later decided to invite the board to the social event “as a courtesy,” Duran said. The district did not track which board members agreed to participate in the dinner.

At the dinner, board members mingled with leaders from Green Dot Public Schools, New Visions Schools, Mastery Public Schools, and the school management organization AUSL.

But later in the evening, the conversation became more formal and focused on Aurora Central High School, where the district is trying to improve student outcomes on standardized tests and graduation rates before the state steps in.

“They asked us, as board members, to share some of the context at Central, in terms of what does the community look like, what are some of the questions we’re wrestling with that would be helpful to answer, what prompted us to seek them out,” JulieMarie Shepherd, the school board president, said said.

Shepherd said she believed the meeting was within the limits of the law because neither an official course of action was discussed nor a vote was taken. It was a social event, an exception to the open records law, Shepherd said.

While the open meetings law does allow some flexibility around social events — like a chance meeting at a school fundraiser — that clearly isn’t the case here, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

“The large group discussion at which board members were asked to discuss Aurora Central should have been posted somehow,” Roberts said. “That was a meeting, involving more than two members of the board, at which public business was discussed. The public should have known about that meeting and should have been given an opportunity to hear the discussion.”

Board member Cathy Wildman said she didn’t know the meeting hadn’t been posted.

“I made the assumption that it had been taken care of through [district lawyers],” Wildman said. “That’s the minutiae I don’t have to deal with. It should be dealt with by administration. Nine times out of 10 we are very careful.”

The district’s admission about the illegal meeting comes less than 24 hours after some board members raised concern at their May 5 meeting about a lack of community input on a broad strategy to improve student learning at a cluster of schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood, near Aurora Central High.

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