changing suburbs

Aurora’s shrinking enrollment: District blames gentrification, prepares to cut budget

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Aurora Public Schools is preparing to slash $3 million from its budget in the face of its largest enrollment decline in decades, a sign that the metro area’s skyrocketing housing costs are transforming what has long been an affordable alternative for low-income families.

The number of students who showed up at Aurora schools this fall was less than school district officials had expected, especially in lower-income schools. That hurts on two fronts – it means less state per-pupil funding, and less money earmarked for students in poverty.

Current unofficial student counts put the number of Aurora Public Schools students this fall at 41,926, down from 42,569 in 2015. That would represent the district’s largest enrollment decline in at least 46 years.

“It’s extremely hard to predict housing conditions in Aurora,” Josh Hensley, planning coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, said at a school board meeting this week. “Recent changes have been very abrupt. We went from seeing the largest increases to the largest decline in a matter of a couple of years.”

For decades, Aurora was known as an affordable Denver suburb — a large, diverse city that in places has unrecognizable borders with its neighbors. But housing costs are rising. The website Zillow, which tracks rentals and house sales, estimates Aurora rents have increased 14.3 percent over the past year.

“It appears to have gotten to the point where most modest families can no longer afford to live here,” Hensley said. “We’re becoming less affordable quicker than the metro area.”

Chris Maraschky, executive director of Aurora’s Housing Authority, said that rents in the city are at an all-time high and affordable housing is in high demand, but there’s not enough. The waitlist for Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income families pay rent hasn’t been opened since 2005.

“Aurora is relatively affordable compared to Denver,” Maraschky said. “I know that doesn’t help if someone is making $12 an hour. Compared to where we were four years ago, things are not affordable.”

According to the district’s research, people need to make about $1,077 a month and $43,000 a year to afford Aurora’s median rent with no burden.

Lisa Jones, a 48-year-old who left her children’s father in March, said she is struggling to find housing in Aurora. Although she is trying to keep her kids in their Aurora schools, she doesn’t know how much longer she will.

“I really don’t want to displace my children,” Jones said. “I really, really don’t.”

For now Jones is living with her four children — two school-aged — and three grandchildren at her parents’ house in Aurora. Jones said her son at South Middle School and her daughter at Aurora Central High School are thriving and have been on honor roll and in student council. Her son also plays the violin.

Every day, Jones and her kids look for a new place to rent.

“It is ridiculous,” Jones said. “Before, honestly I could sit down and look and within two weeks I could find something. It’s not there now. It’s so different.”

Aurora Public Schools’ projections of student enrollment were off by 643 students and were most incorrect for the number of young students in elementary schools. That’s significant because as those kids grow up, their grade levels may remain small and continue to have an impact on schools for a longer period of time.

School district staff laid out the potential budget impact at a school board meeting Tuesday. The short-term plan is to make cuts in every department at the district level, to put more building maintenance projects on hold and to keep any money that schools had intended to carry over from their allocated budgets last year.

Board members had a lengthy discussion, urging the superintendent to be selective about which district departments take cuts, and by how much, based on the services they provide to the district, teachers or students.

“When you take a flat cut, it doesn’t play to how we approach equity in this district,” said board president Amber Drevon.

A small portion of the enrollment decline in Aurora schools could also be due to families sending their kids out of the district to other schools — mostly in Denver.

Last year, the number of Aurora students opting out of the district rose to more than 4,800, up from around 3,400 each of the previous four years. The state has not posted the current year’s numbers.

Staff told the board that tax revenues they thought they would get from the city also haven’t reached expectations.

Despite the cuts, the Aurora school board on Tuesday approved on first reading a new contract for teachers that includes a 1.2 percent salary increase starting in January and a promise that the district will pick up the increases in health insurance costs and pension payments.

The district will revisit teacher raises if voters in November approve a $300 million bond increase.

The district introduced the ballot measure in August, citing a need for a new school to relieve overcrowding in northwest Aurora and maintenance repairs at several schools. If passed, the bond measure would also add classrooms at some schools, including Aurora Central High School and Rangeview High School.

The recent enrollment drops don’t change those needs, officials say.

“From a capacity standpoint, it does not provide us any significant relief as a district,” Hensley said.

That’s because school breakdowns of enrollment show an almost east-west divide in the city. Most schools in the western part of Aurora that border Denver, including Lowry and other neighborhoods, are losing kids. A charter school, the Lotus School for Excellence, is an exception.

The following map illustrates the divide. Click on a pin to identify schools and learn about their enrollment trends:

Farther east, near the neighborhoods of Buckley Air Force Base, schools such as Hinkley High School and Vista Peak continue to grow.

Looking to the coming years, officials are now expecting more budget cuts — and in the next round, schools and teachers would not be shielded from the impact.

Enrollment eventually will stabilize and may grow again, officials predict, but the city could look different by then.

“Aurora has lots of developable land,” Hensley said. “There are several hundred homes being completed,” many of them with more expensive price tags than what has been the norm in Aurora.

Lease for scholarships

Aurora Public Schools, CSU online degree program hammering out details of new partnership

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

Seven months after voters backed the project as part of a $300 million bond package, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State University are negotiating terms of an unusual partnership that involves swapping building space for scholarships and other services.

Under the proposed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 million to construct a new building to house CSU’s Global Campus, an online degree program under the Colorado State University system. If board members approve the final deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through conventional lease payments, but in some combination of full-ride scholarships, discounted tuition for district graduates or teachers, and staff training.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open another door to college for Aurora students, many of whom come from low-income families.

But some school board members have expressed skepticism about how many Aurora students will benefit, and one has raised questions about Munn’s position as CSU board member.

For the project to even be included on last fall’s bond question, state law had to change. After lobbying from APS officials, lawmakers did just that, allowing for bond-financed projects to build not just school district buildings but also buildings to lease to higher education institutions.

Aurora Public Schools then included the project in its bond package, which is also paying for two new school buildings, fixes to existing buildings and technology upgrades.

CSU-Global currently pays $500,000 per year to lease office space near the Denver Tech center, in the south suburbs.

“What we are doing right now is paying a landlord,” said CSU-Global president Becky Takeda-Tinker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and inside the public sector, it makes a lot of sense.”

Plenty of uncertainties remain. While the district has hired an architect, a site has not yet been determined. The initial proposed site, on vacant land the district owns near William Smith High School on Airport Boulevard, may not be available because of federal easements on the property. Munn said officials are considering about five additional sites.

As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on market rates and the services the district receives must be worth that amount. But since a location hasn’t been set, officials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms continue to change, Munn said, in part, because a location for the new building hasn’t been finalized.

Questions and concerns about the partnership came up at an Aurora school board meeting in December, when some board members said they were learning for the first time that students would not be able to enroll at CSU-Global directly after high school.

Because CSU-Global is set up to serve non-traditional students, and because state officials didn’t want the school to compete with existing schools and community colleges, the school only takes transfer students who already have more than 12 credits, unless they’re from outside Colorado.

At the meeting, board president Amber Drevon questioned Munn about how many students might benefit from such a scholarship if they have to go out on their own first.

“I thought we were trying to reach the students that wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise,” Drevon said. “But they are going to have to go spend that money or get scholarships first before they even have the opportunity to enroll in CSU-Global. That probably will not help a lot of kids we were trying to reach in the first place.”

Munn responded that even so, the thought of a portion of a four-year degree at an affordable price would be used as motivation for students.

“What concerns me is that you’ll lose them,” Drevon said.

“I appreciate that, but I think the challenge is we’re already losing them,” Munn responded.

Drevon did not return messages requesting comment for this story.

Early draft documents from July 2015 estimated that about 200 Aurora students per year could potentially benefit from scholarships or discounted tuition at CSU-Global. But Munn said the number of students who will benefit will depend on issues still to be resolved, including figuring out how many services the college will need to provide or whether the program prioritizes students who qualify for federal Pell grants or students studying a particular career program.

He said conversations are underway to see if money can be raised to help students pay for the credits they would need to earn at a community college or elsewhere before transferring to CSU-Global.

Board member Eric Nelson also raised alarm in December about Munn’s status as a governing board member for the CSU system. Munn became board chair just over a month ago.

“To me it seems the biggest beneficiary here is you, currying political favor with large CSU donors and other CSU board members at the expense of APS and our own district and student needs,” Nelson wrote to Munn in December.

Nelson said last week that his concerns haven’t changed.

Munn said he has disclosed both positions, has removed himself from all board votes or discussions at CSU about the proposed deal and is not at the negotiating table, though he will be making final recommendations on behalf of the Aurora school district.

Other board members are unconcerned about Munn’s two roles.

“I really don’t worry about it,” said board member Monica Colbert. “Because of the format CSU-Global offers, they’re the right ones to offer services to our students, regardless of Rico’s role.”

Munn says the clear goal of the partnership is to increase the district’s college going rate, and he said CSU-Global addresses some of the issues Aurora graduates cite in not going to college, such as not having the ability or desire to move away from their community, or the need to work while going to school.

According to a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, about 42 percent of the district’s graduates went on to college in 2015, which is lower than the state’s overall college-going rate of 56.5 percent.

If the same Aurora students are going to college, but just changing which school they go to, then the partnership will not have been a success, Munn said.

Michele Moses, professor of educational foundations and policies at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education, said that she believes the proposal could increase college access, but that the district should question what an online-only college could provide that other colleges can’t, given the overall bad track record of online schools, particularly with at-risk students.

“It seems the question really is, ‘Is the investment that this is going to take for them, is that going to be worth the benefit, given that we have all of these concerns right off the bat?’” Moses said. “If the partnership with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puzzle of college access, then maybe, why not?”

Munn said he expects to have the major pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a letter of intent this fall. And work on the building should be able to start this winter so the building could be ready next year.

“We know how it can benefit students and we know different ways it can benefit students,” Munn said. “Now it’s about using the resources that we have to structure it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.