Whatever way you look at it, the Aurora school board election on Nov. 7 is likely to be a game-changer.
Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election — a majority that could potentially redirect the school district’s reforms. Of the nine people who will appear on the ballot for those four seats, only one is an incumbent. The other candidates include a lawyer who is married to a teacher, a former board member, a truck driver, a fire inspector, and a graduate of Aurora Central — one of the district’s lowest performing schools.
On the table are issues that have become controversial in Aurora, as they have been elsewhere, such as charters. And the future of the district is on the line, as it continues work to improve some of the state’s lowest schools while facing shifts in enrollment that are producing a new set of challenges for school leaders.
Also unusual in this race is the involvement of organized groups who see the election as an opportunity for minority voices — like those of immigrants or African-Americans — to be heard.
“I think that one thing that’s different in Aurora this year is the high numbers of candidates across the city — school board, city council. People, especially progressives, are feeling really activated,” said Jack Teter, a research director for Democrats for Education Reform, one of the groups supporting candidates in the election. “We’re engaging this year because while Aurora is making strides, there’s still a long way to go.”
Like any school board race, the election is also be a referendum on the direction of the district. In his four years as superintendent, Rico Munn has rolled out many changes with general, if sometimes mixed, support from the current school board.
While the district was until recently considered unfriendly to charters, Munn is phasing in a charter school to replace a district-run school that was not performing well academically. He invited another charter school network, DSST, to open in Aurora and offered to help pay for a new building.
He and the board granted five schools innovation status to seek autonomy from some district, union and state rules. And now the district is about to write a new strategic plan on how it should build and adapt to changes in enrollment that are affecting different parts of sprawling Aurora in different ways.
Critics of Munn say they want to see more change, and faster. Others are calling for the district to slow down or stop some of Munn’s initiatives all together.
“If one side wins, we could continue to see an expansion of a Denver model, if you will, of taking our schools and saying you’re not working, which I don’t believe is the answer,” said Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “I just don’t.”
Motivating several of the candidates to seek seats is the district’s embrace of charter schools. In particular, opponents have cited spending, with some saying Aurora can not afford to direct funds away from the public schools at a time when a drop in enrollment is shrinking the district’s budget.
Four candidates that are part of a union-supported A-Team slate oppose charter school expansion and call for holding the existing charter schools to higher standards. Two candidates supported by the reform-minded group Democrats for Education Reform press for more school options and support the district’s work and current direction. Board member Barbara Yamrick, the one incumbent seeking reelection, expressed interest in a moratorium on charter schools at a board meeting this week.
Both the union and Democrats for Education Reform are raising thousands to support the candidates. A few of the candidates have also received contributions from groups and individuals who have long contributed to reform-supportive candidates in Denver, such as Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, but who are new to Aurora’s scene.
In the past, dividing lines among Aurora’s school board members or candidates have not been as clear as they may be in other metro area districts. For instance, Cathy Wildman and Dan Jorgensen, two school board members supported by the union two years ago, voted in favor of approving the DSST charter schools for Aurora, something the union has opposed.
“We’ve changed the way charter schools are discussed in Aurora,” Wilcox said. “We’re going out and soliciting them. ‘Come to Aurora and fix our woes.’ I don’t think we’re putting the same emphasis on supporting our existing schools.”
Still, while the issue is an important one to the union and some activists, it may not always resonate with voters.
Abby Cillo, taught at Fletcher Community School, which is the only school Aurora has shut down and which is being replaced with a charter school. That change has pushed her deeper into involvement in the union (she’s now on the board of directors), and has motivated her to knock on doors after school to help campaign for the union-endorsed slate of candidates.
“We have our students at stake,” Cillo said. “What happens if Aurora schools get shut down and then the kids can’t get into the charter schools that replace them?”
In knocking on doors, though, Cillo said she has found that few voters have a full grasp of the issues around charter schools.
Community leaders agree that charter schools may have dominated discussions among educators and candidates, but they are not necessarily a priority with voters.
“When I talk to parents, they just want good public school options,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who hosted a forum for the candidates. “I don’t hear from parents talk about compensation or tenure or evaluation. Students, too, they want access to a quality education.”
Voices from people of color, who are a majority in Aurora, are speaking out more in this race than in the past, observers say. RISE Colorado, the Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA), and the African Leadership Group are among the local community groups that have hosted or are hosting candidate forums for the school board race. Students and parents have led these forums and posed their own questions.
A group of parents, students and community leaders organized through RISE Colorado earlier this year, helped draft a board resolution expressing support for immigrants facing fears about deportation. Those parents are also asking board candidates to express whether they support that statement as well.
YAASPA has been in Aurora for seven years and is helping students get involved in the school board election for the first time. The African Leadership Group has been in Aurora for 12 years and is also hosting a forum for the first time this Saturday.
“I think it’s time for us to make our voices heard,” said Sylvia Karanja, education coordinator for the African Leadership Group. “We do have the numbers, so you’re going to have to listen to us. We do have a voice.”
Karanja said the most pressing issue for community members they work with is for improved and expanded language and translation services. Some also have trust issues with the district, she said, and feel leaders have not done enough to support DACA students who are temporarily protected from deportation under a status that President Trump has moved to overturn.
Janiece Mackey, co-founder and executive director of YAASPA, said students were excited to be involved and to question school board candidates about issues they care about, including inequities in opportunities they find from one high school to the next and what they see as a lack of inclusion.
“The students didn’t realize that there was such a huge budget cut until they were experiencing the cuts,” Mackey said. “They ask, ‘why do you all get to make these decisions for us and why don’t we know what the heck is going on?’ ”
She said many see race and equity issues cutting across all challenges in the district, and they are watching to see how candidates respond to those issues in making their decisions on who to support.
“Personally I think these candidates are actually more oriented toward social justice and racial equity, which is kind of a different notion of education reform which we’ve seen recently,” Mackey said. “It’s not so much that these populations didn’t exist before, but there is more attention being called to their needs.”