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.

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent:

budding issue

Aurora superintendent says no to charter school locating near marijuana shop

Students of Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Colo. Photo provided by Vega Collegiate Academy.

Update: The State Board of Education on Feb. 15 dismissed an appeal from Vega Collegiate Academy and told the school to go through the mediation process outlined in its contract with the district.

A charter school looking to move out of a church basement as it expands into more grades next year has halted its plans after the Aurora school district rejected the school’s desired location — near a pot shop.

City and district officials say it’s the first time the issue has come up in Aurora since marijuana retail businesses began opening in the fall of 2014.

State law prevents marijuana stores from opening within 1,000 feet of a school, but it doesn’t address schools opening near existing marijuana businesses. Vega Collegiate Academy’s contract with the district states the superintendent must approve any relocation. In this case, he didn’t.

Vega officials had already spent $40,000 on traffic studies, building plans, and deposits for the space at Colfax and Galena, about a mile from its current location in a church in northwest Aurora. Many parents had seen some plans and were excited about the expansion and larger space that might allow for more programming such as yoga or art.

Charter school officials appealed the denial – first to the school district and now to the State Board of Education. The final purchase of the site, and the remodeling that would have had to taken place to have students move in this fall, are on hold.

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega, told the school board last week that the denial sends a bad message to the school’s students.

“Your denial of our space has told our children and families that it’s O.K. to live there, just not to go to school there,” Mullins said. “That is unacceptable.”

Because of the pending legal challenge, Aurora Public School officials said they would not comment on the denial. But in a letter to the school, Superintendent Rico Munn said the location – 300 feet from a marijuana dispensary – raises concerns. In trying to reconsider his decision, he noted he reviewed parent support letters, maps, crime data, and research about crime near marijuana dispensaries.

“I continue to have concerns,” Munn’s letter states. “I have not found anything to change my original denial.”

Vega school officials said that finding a location for the school was “a Herculean accomplishment in Colorado’s tight commercial market,” according to appeal documents.

The proposed building, a three-story retail building most recently housing a barber shop, is next to a Dollar General and was attractive in part, because it is close to where families of current students live and because of the large size.

“Our children deserve to go to a quality school close to their home,” Mullins told the board. “Our children and families should not be punished because of where they live or what facilities currently exist in our community.”

Proposed location at 10180 E. Colfax Ave.

Vega opened in August, enrolling almost 100 kindergarten and fifth graders. The plan is to expand by two grade levels a year until the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. A high percentage of families in the northwest Aurora area live in poverty — a population Vega officials want to serve.

The proposed school site on Colfax has an entrance in the back that opens south onto a parking lot so that students would not have to enter from Colfax. An alleyway connects the parking lot to a strip mall with a Starbuds dispensary whose entrance faces west.

Reached on Friday, Brian Ruden, one of the owners of the Starbuds pot shop, said he was not aware of the possibility of a school relocating there.

In Denver, analysis done by the city and by the Denver Post in 2016 found more than 20 schools that are located within 1,000 feet of a marijuana store. In most cases, the schools moved in after the marijuana shop.

DPS officials did not respond to a request for comment about how they make decisions for school locations near marijuana shops.

The connection between crime and marijuana has been contentious and definitive evidence does not exist.

The 1,000-foot buffer was created by the state in 2012 after federal officials sent letters to medical marijuana shops informing them that they would enforce federal drug laws near schools. Federal prosecutors have generally followed a policy of not going after businesses that follow state law, but it’s not clear how aggressive the current administration will be on imposing federal enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana sales.

Vega employees, parents, and community members also spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday about the decision. Mullins, the founder, said more than 200 parents, employees, and community members packed the board meeting, many with signs in support of Vega’s relocation. Thirty-five people signed up to speak, but because of the lengthy list, the school board limited the speakers to four.

“It would be very close to my home and so would make life a lot easier for me as an older person raising kids,” one grandmother told the school board.

The woman, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she knows the area has a bad reputation, but said locating a school in a building that has often been empty could help change that.

Another mother, Arely Suarez, who said her fifth-grade daughter attends the school, told the school board in Spanish that the students need the bigger space.

“The kids have a right to a good education,” Suarez said. “As far as the marijuana dispensaries, this is a factor at the state level, it’s not just a factor that is affecting the Aurora school district.”

The legal challenge the state must first consider is whether it has jurisdiction for the appeal. Vega officials asked for the appeal, saying the district is imposing unreasonable conditions on the charter school.

But the Aurora district argued in filings that they have authority over the decision. The filings state the state board does not have jurisdiction because the superintendent, not the Aurora school board, made the decision, and because the dispute is not an unreasonable condition. The district argues the charter school should first remedy the conflict according to a process outlined in their contracts that would include mediation.

Either process could stretch out for months.

This story was updated to reflect more accurate information about the building.