The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.
The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.
In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.
During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.
Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.
“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”
Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.
The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.
School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.
According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.
The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.
Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.
DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.
A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.
The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.
Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.
DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.
What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.
When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.
The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.
A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.