Tough options

Aurora schools weighing a long list of possible budget cuts for next year

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn in 2013 (Denver Post file)

Eliminating full-day kindergarten, adding furlough days and cutting middle school sports are among the steps Aurora Public Schools is considering to shrink next year’s budget as the district copes with an array of financial challenges.

The three scenarios are part of a long list of possible moves district officials are considering to slash the 2017-18 budget, which needs to be about $31 million less than the current year’s budget.

The district cut $3 million from central administration in the middle of this school year after an unanticipated enrollment decline, its largest in decades.

More expected declines in enrollment and other factors are causing district officials to seek community input on what to prioritize as it faces tough decisions about next year’s budget.

Like districts across the state, Aurora is also expecting state funding will again fall short of the amount that a state formula calculates it should get. Cuts could be even greater next year because a state constitutional amendment may drop residential property taxes, meaning districts would lose some local revenue.

The Aurora district has held back big cuts to the classroom in recent years by spending money from the district’s reserves — a rainy-day fund of unallocated savings — but now the district wants to start building up that account again instead of draining it.

“It’s a challenging mix of contributing factors,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.

At an open house Saturday about the district’s budget conundrum, one person asked Munn why the district hadn’t asked voters for a tax increase from a mill levy override in November at the same time as a $300 million bond request — which voters approved — in anticipation of the cuts.

Munn said asking for both may have doomed the requests but said the district is considering asking voters for such a tax increase next year. Anticipating a longer trend of shrinking enrollment, he said the budget still needs to shrink.

A tax increase is not meant to address a drop in students, Munn said.

“It’s not appropriate for us to say we have fewer students but we want more money,” he said.

The district already has come up with one set of proposed cuts that would account for $21.8 million of the $31 million the district aims to cut. Those steps include renegotiating employee health benefits, eliminating late-start Wednesdays at some schools and charging more overhead costs to state funds that help districts for things like preschool.

The district is asking for community feedback on other possible cuts to find the rest of the savings. Officials are sharing a list of 41 ideas for cutting the budget and created four scenarios including one that just reduces school staffing. People also have the option to draw their own budget from the list.

Some of the ideas include shifting to a four-day week for a savings of $450,000; eliminating three swimming pools at high schools for a savings of $500,000; and postponing or canceling the adoption of new curriculum materials for a savings of $2.4 million.

Looking through the list, Marisa Sanchez, a mother of two boys in the district, worried that many choices would have too much of an impact on students.

“Wanting to remove staff from schools shouldn’t be an option,” Sanchez said. “They’re there because they are necessary. I’m a volunteer at my son’s school and I see it.”

Donna Godfrey said she is fine with the district getting rid of swimming pools but also doesn’t want to see less staff in schools. She said she worried about classrooms filled with students that need more support like those learning English or who are new to the country.

“Adding just three more students to that class, it’s a bad thing,” Godfrey said.

Sanchez also worried that shifting the enrollment process to the schools instead of at the district-level, an idea that would save $443,085, “would be chaos.”

Munn said he hasn’t processed the feedback that the district has received so far, but said it will all be considered.

“What I’m happy about is that people can actually digest these options and think about some of the tough choices we have to make,” Munn said.

The district will have one more open house at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vista PEAK Exploratory School, 24551 E. 1st Ave. Online, the district will continue to take feedback through Feb. 3.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that more drastic budget cuts could be expected next year because of a change in personal property taxes. 

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline, and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14, and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”