survey says

Poll: Aurora voters support a tax increase even if the district isn’t doing enough to boost achievement

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Rangeview High School in Aurora walk through the hall during passing period.

Aurora residents would likely vote to pay more in taxes to repair existing buildings and build new ones despite having mixed feelings about the academically struggling Aurora Public Schools system — a new survey found.

Nearly two-thirds of voters in a telephone poll commissioned by the district said they would support raising property taxes by 65 cents per month for every $100,000 of their home’s value. The extra revenue would help repair school roofs, infuse classrooms with technology and build two new schools that would serve students in pre-school through eighth grade.

Support for a $350 million bond, which would raises property taxes by $2.30 per month for every $100,000 a home is worth, was lower at 43 percent.

At the same time, the survey found lukewarm support for what’s actually happening inside Aurora’s school buildings. Fewer than half of the voters surveyed feel Superintendent Rico Munn is doing a good job, and they also were split on a proposed policy to pay teachers more at some schools that have high turnover.

The survey’s results, which the school board will hear more about at its Tuesday meeting, will likely be used to influence some of the district’s most important policy discussions and decisions, especially whether to ask voters next fall to approve a tax hike.

Like many school districts along the Front Range, Aurora has struggled in recent years with a growing at-risk student body. Nearly every APS campus is at enrollment capacity, even after the district built a new school on Airport Road. Alternatives to a bond being floated include buying more mobile classrooms, shifting to a year-round school calendar and taking out a private loan to build another new school.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Slightly more than 25 percent of voters believe Aurora Public Schools has gotten worse during the last three to five years.
  • 42 percent of voters believe Superintendent Munn is doing a good or excellent job at running the school district.
  • Nearly two-thirds of APS parents surveyed believe APS is doing a good or excellent job at meeting the needs of the district’s diverse student population.
  • But only 32 percent of parents believe the district has enough “innovation solutions” to boost student achievement.
  • 49 percent of voters believe teachers in all Aurora schools should be paid the same.

The poll of 500 likely voters was conducted between Sept. 8 and Sept. 16. The survey has a 4.3 percent margin of error.

APS is one of about a dozen school districts on the state’s watch list for low student achievement. If the district does not improve quickly, it risks losing its accreditation from the state.

In an effort to stave off state involvement, the district is launching an ambitious reform plan that would free Aurora Central High School and other schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood from some district and state policies. Those schools, in what is being called an ACTION Zone, would also have more flexibility around their budget, staff and curriculum.

An immediate lesson the district learned from the poll: it hasn’t done enough to communicate its plans for its struggling schools.

“We have not communicated a lot about our innovation plans and what we’re looking at as far as the ACTION Zone Plan and that is something we do plan to do,” said Rebecca Herbst, the district’s bond communication specialist.

Survey results

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.