New issues

One guarantee in Aurora’s school board election: Change is on the way

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

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.”

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.