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.”


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.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.