high stakes

Aurora’s union-backed school board slate prevails, putting district on uncertain path

Debbie Gerkin, right, and others celebrating early returns for Aurora's school board race Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

AURORA — Four union-backed candidates running as a slate swept to victory Tuesday in the Aurora school board election, bring uncertainty to a long-struggling district that has shown recent signs of improvement. 

The winning coalition of four teachers union-endorsed candidates — Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Debra Gerkin, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey — ran as “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Cox and Gerkin finished with the highest percentage of votes, followed by Armstrong-Romero and Ivey.

Significant changes could be coming to the district as a result. The current board, though not always unified, has largely backed Superintendent Rico Munn’s strategies, which include recruiting high-performing charter schools to Aurora.

None of the winning candidates on Tuesday night hinted at big imminent changes, but their previously stated positions indicated that Munn’s vision may not align with theirs.

Ivey said Tuesday that he plans to start his term on the board with an open mind, working with the current school board members and giving Munn an opportunity to work with the new board.

“We want to make sure our traditional public schools are up to par first, but we’re not trying to close our charter schools either, or come in with an agenda” Ivey said. “That’s my attitude about it.”

Cox, who has been the most vocal in opposition to charters said it’s too early to say what the win will mean for charter schools, but said the slate’s win will mean they will “fully be able to support public schools.”

In response to Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire, Cox had said, “We should focus on building our public schools up to the desired level before trying to replace them with charters. With that being said, this is not a black and white issue.”

Gerkin, who in addition to support from the teacher’s union reported a $100 contribution from Democrats for Education Reform, said charter schools “do not offer a clear advantage for students” and said she was concerned about how they pull money away from “traditional classrooms.”

Two candidates who had the next highest number of votes — Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — support charters and the school district’s current direction, and have been backed by pro-education reform organizations.

Munn, four years into his role in the district, has led work to create a friendlier process to accept and review charter applications. Munn also took the step last year of inviting DSST, a high performing charter network, to open a school in Aurora, offering to cover half the cost of a new building for the school.

Last year, the district also decided to close a low-performing school for the first time, turning over management to a charter school that is now in the process of phasing in.

The union has been vocal in opposing many of those moves.

The district showed enough improvement to earn a higher state rating this year, which pulled APS off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance.

Outside groups have spent more than a quarter of a million dollars trying to influence voters this year, including groups affiliated with the state’s teachers union and Democrats for Education Reform. Individual candidates also recorded donations from Daniel Ritchie, a former chairman of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, and Patrick Hamill, CEO of Oakwood Homes. Both men are regular donors to Denver school board candidates, but were contributing to Aurora candidates for the first time.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said at a watch party Tuesday night that the campaign had help from teachers around the metro area and from as far away as Colorado Springs.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

trading for tuition

New deal gives Aurora staff and graduates discounted college tuition at one online school

Aurora graduates and staff will now get a discount on college tuition at an online school as part of a deal in which the college will get a building in exchange for the discounted rates, district officials announced Monday.

The district had been working on the unique deal for more than a year. Initially, it raised several questions among school board members who wondered if there was a conflict of interest in selecting the CSU-Global Campus as the higher education partner for the district. They also wondered if that would be the best place for students of Aurora’s demographics, including students of color and students from low-income families since online schools often don’t show success serving at-risk students.

Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn, who came up with the idea for the plan, is chair of the governing board for the Colorado State University system, but has said he was not negotiating the deal. CSU-Global is an online four-year university under the CSU system. It was set up to serve non-traditional students, and officials believe it may help address some of the reasons Aurora students cite in not going to college, such as not being able to leave Aurora, or needing to work while going to school.

According to the latest numbers from a Colorado Department of Higher Education report, about 42 percent of Aurora students from the class of 2016 enrolled in higher education. A different state report evaluating the district puts that figure closer to 38 percent. The rate is significantly lower than the college-going rate for the state of about 56 percent.

CSU-Global just recently began accepting first-year college students — addressing another concern of previous school board members that students would have to go elsewhere on their own first.

Monday’s announcement states that Aurora graduates, going back to those from 2012, can enroll this year at a tuition rate of $250 per credit hour to earn their bachelor’s degree online. The statement estimates students would save approximately $2,400 per year on tuition based on a typical course load.

District staff pursuing an undergraduate degree will also receive the rate of $250 per credit hour, while staff members pursuing graduate degrees will receive a discounted rate of $335 per credit hour. A website lists full tuition rates at $350 per credit hour for undergraduate, and $500 per credit hour for graduate courses.

Other questions centered around whether the deal made financial sense for the district, but some of those questions haven’t been answered.

According to Monday’s news release, the discount rates “are available as APS and CSU-Global continue to work toward a long-term partnership.”

The money to pay for the higher-ed building will come from the $300 million bond package that Aurora voters approved in 2016.

Current board president Marques Ivey said in a released statement that he was “thrilled” the district could offer the discounts.

“While we recognize that an online experience may not be right for every student, we want to continue to pursue partnerships that expand offerings and reduce barriers to earning post-secondary certificates and degrees,” Ivey said in the statement. “This partnership is another significant effort toward achieving our vision that every APS student shapes a successful future.”