Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

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

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

List of schools impacted

  • Fulton Academy of Excellence
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary
  • William Smith High School
  • Tollgate Elementary
  • Vista Peak Exploratory
  • Vista Peak Preparatory

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”

Payment dispute

Fired testing company seeks $25.3 million for work on TNReady’s bumpy rollout

PHOTO: TN.gov

Tennessee officials won’t talk about the state’s ongoing dispute with the testing company it fired last year, but the company’s president is.

Henry Scherich

Henry Scherich says Tennessee owes Measurement Inc. $25.3 million for services associated with TNReady, the state’s new standardized test for its public schools. That’s nearly a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract with the state, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout.

So far, the state has paid the Durham, North Carolina-based company about $545,000 for its services, representing about 2 percent of the total bill, according to a claim recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

Measurement Inc. filed the claim with the state in February in an effort to get the rest of the money that it says it’s owed. Since then, lawyers for both sides have been in discussions, and the company filed a lawsuit in June with the Tennessee Claims Commission. The commission has directed the State Department of Education to respond to the complaint by Nov. 30.

“We’re moving forward,” Scherich told Chalkbeat when asked about the status of the talks. “… We’re simply asking to be paid for the services we provided.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declined last week to discuss the dispute, which she called “an ongoing pending lawsuit.” A spokesman for the attorney general’s office also declined to comment on Monday.

Scherich said he and other company officials have not been called to Nashville for hearings or depositions.

“Our lawyers and the state’s lawyers are still skirmishing each other,” he said. “…They argue about lots of things. It’s kind of like we’re establishing the ground rules for how this process is going to proceed.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the firing of Measurement Inc. and the suspensions of most testing in April 2016.

Tennessee’s dramatic testing failure started on Feb. 8, 2016, when students logged on during the first morning of testing and were unable to load TNReady off the new online platform developed by Measurement Inc. The fallout culminated several months later when McQueen fired the company and canceled testing altogether for grades 3-8. In between were months of delays after McQueen instructed districts to revert to paper-and-pencil materials that would be provided by Measurement Inc. under the terms of their contract. Many of those materials never arrived.

The company’s claim suggests that the state was hasty in its decision to cancel online testing and therefore shares blame for a year of incomplete testing.

The Tennessee Department of Education “unilaterally and unjustifiably ordered the cancellation of all statewide electronic testing that occurred on February 8, 2016, following a transitory slowdown of network services that morning,” the claim says.

(In an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat the day before his company was fired, Scherich said Measurement Inc.’s online platform did not have enough servers for the 48,000 students who logged on that first day — a problem that he said could have been fixed eventually.)

The claim also charges that McQueen’s subsequent order to substitute paper test materials was “unnecessary and irresponsible” and impossible to meet because of the logistical challenge of printing and distributing them statewide in a matter of weeks.

In her letter terminating the state’s contracts with Measurement Inc., McQueen describes daily problems with the company’s online platform in the months leading up to the botched launch. “This was not just a testing day hiccup; the online platform failed to function on day one of testing,” she wrote.

McQueen said those experiences contributed to her department’s conclusion that Measurement Inc. was unable to provide a reliable, consistent online platform and left her with no option but to order paper and pencil tests. She also cited the company’s failure to meet its own paper test delivery deadlines for her ultimate decision to terminate the contracts and suspend testing.

The last sentence of the four-page termination letter says the state would “work with (Measurement Inc.) to determine reconciliation for appropriate compensation due, if any, for services and deliverables that have been completed as of the termination date after liquidated damages have been assessed.”

In addition to its invoices for work under the contract, Scherich said his company is owed another $400,000 for delivering test-related materials to the state after its contract was ended.

“We didn’t want to be a company that stood in the way of the programs of the state of Tennessee, so we provided all the information they requested,” Scherich said. “We were told we would be paid, we provided the information, and then we’ve not been paid.”

Founded in 1980, Measurement Inc. had been doing testing-related work for Tennessee for more than a decade before being awarded the 2014 TNReady contract, its biggest job ever. The company had a fast deadline — only a year — to create the state’s test for grades 3-11 math and English language arts after a vote months earlier by the legislature prompted Tennessee to pull out of PARCC, a consortium of other states with a shared Common Core-aligned assessment.

Scherich said the loss of the TNReady contract was “a major hit” for his company, but that Measurement Inc. has paid every employee and subcontractor who worked on the project. “We have had to go into debt to keep ourselves viable while we wait for this situation with Tennessee to be resolved,” he said, adding that the company continues to do work in about 20 other states.

To pursue its claim, Measurement Inc. has hired the Tennessee law firm of Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop, which has offices in Nashville and Knoxville.

“I’m sure we’ll work out something amicable with the state over time,” he said. “I’m an optimistic person. But I think our lawyers and their lawyers will have to have a lot of negotiations.”

Below are Measurement Inc.’s claim against the state, and the state’s letter terminating its contracts with the company.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details about the claim’s status.