Aurora Public Schools’ budget situation is not as precarious as previously thought, causing the district to step back from more drastic scenarios such as eliminating full-day kindergarten, cutting sports and clubs, and increasing staff-to-student ratios.
Instead, the district is proposing eliminating late-start Wednesdays to save on transportation, changing the way it gives money to certain schools and reducing health care options for teachers and other employees.
School board members got a preview of the budget package Tuesday night.
One reason for the shift is that Aurora’s budget decline would not be as drastic as initially feared under the most recent school funding proposal at the state legislature.
Superintendent Rico Munn said that the budget decrease will be less than the $31 million previously thought.
Although the legislative budget is looking better for Colorado school districts than it did a few months ago, Aurora is still working to shrink its budget because enrollment projections continue to show a downward trend. In the current school year, the district recorded the largest enrollment decline in decades. Demographic changes in the city mean the decline will continue.
“This wasn’t about budget cutting,” Munn said. “It really had to be about redesigning the budget. It wasn’t going to be good enough to cut here and cut there.”
The transportation department will save more than $1 million from not having to use contractors to help shuttle students on late-start Wednesdays. Having one health care provider for employees instead of two will save the district about $2.3 million.
It appears that one possible move — furlough days — will no longer be necessary.
The district will present a draft of the full budget to the board next month and the board is expected to approve it in June. Tuesday’s presentation highlighted the broader work and did not go into all the details.
Under the proposal, the district’s division of Equity in Learning would shrink its budget by changing what the division gives to schools. The division, created as one of the reforms Munn brought to the district, was due for a review to evaluate if it was working as intended.
The evaluation results were used to guide how cuts were proposed for the division. Instead of providing an array of district-level help for improving schools, the division will narrow the help it offers. Instead of offering district-level teacher training, the division will focus on school-level opportunities.
The district also will keep the college preparation International Baccalaureate program that was considered at one point for cuts. Instead, the district is changing how schools get money to offer the program.
In another example, Munn, who previously worked as an attorney, told the board that after reviewing the school board’s contracts with three schools, he determined the schools had been getting too much money for several years. The schools, called pilot schools, were created with the teacher’s union in 2007 to test reforms and school-level autonomy.
This fall, the schools — William Smith High School, Fulton Academy of Excellence and Lyn Knoll Elementary — will start receiving less money. For future years, the district is creating a task force that will recommend a better way to fund those schools.
“We kind of have to almost have a blank slate and have a conversation around what we need in order to either maintain these programs or have a transparent way of allocating to these programs,” Munn said. “Ultimately the board will have to make a decision whether different program types should be funded with a certain model based upon either performance expectations or program design. What we can’t really have happen is we can’t have it be an unpredictable amount.”
The district also highlighted two new contracts that will help for future changes to the budget. Massachusetts-based School by Design will work with three middle schools to find new ways for the schools to use their existing budgets to make changes that could improve student performance. The three middle schools were part of another pilot that was meant to change middle schools in Aurora.
The group has worked with several school districts across the country and has highlighted its efforts in the Thompson School District in Colorado.
Jeri Crispe, director of secondary education in Thompson, said the group helped schools rearrange schedules to find more joint planning time for teachers as the district prepares to transition to a competency-based learning model, which in some districts allows students to move through through classes and grade levels when they prove they’ve learned what they need to learn, instead of after a specific amount of time.
Crispe said teachers and school leaders were involved in the work with School by Design, and said the district still has a good relationship with the company.
Another consultant, Communities in Schools, will work with the district to find community groups that can provide more resources to Aurora schools to alleviate some need for district resources.