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


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

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

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.