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.”

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.