State accountability

More Aurora schools slip onto the state’s academic watch list

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Six Aurora schools are no longer on a path to facing state sanctions for low performance, according to new preliminary ratings state officials sent to districts.

Aurora officials shared the news of those six school improvements with the district’s Board of Education Tuesday night. But the update also included news that another seven schools that weren’t on the state’s watch list have slipped and are now on it. Several others, including Aurora Central High School, failed to make enough improvements to get off.

In total, 19 Aurora schools this year have been flagged by the state for low test scores. That’s more than double the number of schools that were on the state’s academic watch list when Superintendent Rico Munn was hired three years ago to boost student achievement.

Because of the poor performance of its schools, the district also remains on the state’s watch list, but has one more year to show significant improvement before the state is required to take action. The district serving more than 42,000 students is the largest on the state’s watch list.

Munn said Tuesday the district is not where it needs to be yet, but said that there are “positive signs,” and that it’s too early to change the district’s improvement strategies.

Aurora schools on the state’s watch list |
Fletcher Community School
Gateway High School
North Middle School
Sixth Avenue Elementary
South Middle School
Vaughn Elementary
Virginia Court Elementary
Sable Elementary
Wheeling Elementary
Paris Elementary
Aurora Central High School
Jewell Elementary
Dartmouth Elementary
Kenton Elementary
Laredo Elementary
Aurora Hills Middle School
East Middle School
Vista Peak Prep
AXL Academy (charter)

The district’s most ambitious reform effort is the creation of an “innovation zone.” Approved earlier this year by the State Board of Education, five of the district’s schools have received waivers from some union, district and state rules. That freedom allows the schools to extend their day, create their own curriculum and give principals flexibility to staff their schools.

Another school that remains on the state’s watch list, Fletcher Community School, is in the process of being converted into a charter school.

“We are not waiting for CDE to give us a certain mandate,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools. “We are being proactive to improve our schools now.”

The latest preliminary ratings for the schools don’t capture all of those changes, officials pointed out.

“It’s too early to evaluate the work of the innovation zone,” Munn said. “It’s too early to evaluate a conversion process. It’s too early to evaluate some of that stuff.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, district staff told the board about anecdotal evidence showing improvements in school culture, declines in suspensions and expulsions, and increased engagement from students and teachers.

The ratings the state released Tuesday are not final, Munn told his school board, and the district plans to appeal some of them. The state will finalize ratings later this winter.

In the case of schools or districts, Colorado law says the state board must take action after five years of low performance based on reviews by the state. State officials could direct the district to close schools, turn over management to third party operators or charters, or create innovation plans.

Aurora Central High School is the only district school that has been on the state’s lowest performance ratings for five years and again failed to make improvements, meaning it will face state sanctions later this year.

Munn said the district will ask the state board to accept the already approved innovation plan as the state’s corrective action for the school. If it is accepted, the school would have more time to show improvements with the same plan.

Munn says the district is also going to look at the six schools that moved off the list: Century Elementary, Lansing Elementary, Lyn Knoll Elementary, Mrachek Middle School, Boston K-8 and Vista PEAK Exploratory. All schools except for Boston K-8 were on the state watch list for only one year. Boston K-8 had been on the clock for four years. State data on student growth, released last month, showed Boston K-8’s middle school students showed significant growth.

“It’s a lot of individual stories,” Munn said. “That rolls up to a district story at a certain level as to what trends are we seeing. How do we build on things that are working and stabilize those things?”

Munn says they have early indications that help provided by consultants hired to work with the schools on various issues such as discipline and teaching, are proving successful and said he is pleased with the number of teachers and administrators receiving training.

“We did a lot of launching over the first year and a half and this year is going to be about monitoring and about making sure that we got the right capacity,” Munn said. “I think it’s more about digging into the work.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.