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.

Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”

Questions of fairness

Aurora school board raises red flags about bringing DSST charter to district, but signs off on continuing negotiations

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday gave district officials approval to continue negotiations with the DSST charter network, but not before raising concerns about the process and emphasizing that this green light doesn’t guarantee final approval later.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn earlier this year proposed a plan to bring the high-performing DSST network to Aurora, in a new school serving sixth through 12th graders.

Under Munn’s proposal, APS would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money. After passage last month of a $300 million bond measure that included the district’s share of the project cost, Munn on Tuesday asked the board for input on continuing negotiations and on what he should prioritize.

DSST has said it would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that it believes the school district should take the lead.

Board members asked questions around fundraising for the second half of the building’s cost, about whether the school would serve students from across the district or from a specified boundary, and whether the timing is right.

Some board members also raised concerns that the process of inviting DSST for the partnership may not have been fair, and cautioned that they didn’t want to make any guarantees to DSST before the network submits an application for a charter in the district.

“A concern I have with this proposal and not the school — because I would love to have a DSST campus here — is how the community was engaged… and also how our charters were engaged,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “We’re setting up a situation where an outside provider is going to have an opportunity to serve kids, where none of our charters within the district were given that same opportunity.”

Pat Leger, principal of Aurora Academy a charter in its sixth year in the district, said she would have liked the opportunity to have been considered, but mostly felt “offended” because of a recent disagreement with the district about whether her charter could benefit from the district’s bond dollars.

“The part of the process that bothered me the most is he wouldn’t include us in the bond, but he will go out and give money to a charter that he’s never worked with,” Leger said. “That to me feels inappropriate.”

Aurora charter schools are set to get some bond money to improve technology and security, but a district committee found their larger capital requests did not merit inclusion in the bond.

Leger said that she believes Munn’s intentions are good, but that the process hasn’t made it clear why the district believes that need exists at a time when enrollment is down and several other new charter schools were recently approved to open.

“The whole process needs to be looked at,” she said.

Van Schoales, CEO of the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado, while pleased that the district has become more welcoming to charter schools, said his group is also concerned about Aurora’s process.

“You have to have an open, transparent process,” Schoales said. “The fact that the district went back and forth with schools about access to facilities and the bond, it speaks to the fact that there aren’t any clear written rules of engagement.”

Without a process, Schoales said, it could for some people “reinforce the perception that there are backroom deals happening.” Last year, to bring more clarity and transparency to its process, Denver Public Schools adopted a new policy for how it allocates space to district-run and charter schools.

In a letter sent to Munn in July, Bill Kurtz, the charter network’s CEO, expressed a willingness to pursue the plan but outlined a set of criteria the group uses to evaluate potential partnerships. Among the opportunities DSST would be looking for in a deal would be the ability to operate four schools in the district.

Several board members said they would not want to guarantee any future schools without having them go through the district’s application process first. Board member JulieMarie Shepherd wasn’t at the board meeting, but submitted her opinion to the board in writing, expressing the same thought. According to the district’s regular charter school process, applications are accepted each year in March.

The other main concern board members raised was about the timing of opening a new school while enrollment numbers in the district have started dropping. School officials this year were off on their projections by 643 students, requiring the district to adjust the current year’s budget by cutting $3 million.

Two of the five board members at Tuesday’s meeting, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick, suggested the district pause negotiations with DSST while the board works on the budget. Jorgensen requested that district staff look at the financial implications to provide the board more information before a deal reaches a final vote.

Munn told the board that if a deal is reached, a DSST school wouldn’t open for a few years and that by that time, district officials predict enrollment will be increasing again.