Aurora school board rejects superintendent’s proposal in first big decision on school turnaround

Aurora school board members voted against the superintendent’s plan to improve school performance at Lyn Knoll Elementary School after weighing competing recommendations Tuesday.

The vote — a split decision with two veteran members voting against the majority — was the first major decision for the new school board and could signal a new direction for how the district will handle low-performing schools. Four of the seven board members were elected in November as part of a union-backed slate.

Two weeks ago, Aurora Public Schools staff and Superintendent Rico Munn presented the board with a turnaround recommendation for Lyn Knoll, a school that enrolls fewer than 240 students and that earned, for the first time, the lowest quality rating from the state this year.

The district’s proposed plan was to contract with an external manager to help the school improve instruction, teacher training, and family engagement and to do marketing and recruitment to attract new students to the school.

“I believe that next year, if we leave the status quo, Lyn Knoll is likely to pop back up on the performance frameworks, but it’s about are the structures in place, as best we can tell, for a sustained improvement,” Munn said. “Those structures are not in place. This is not a recommendation to get rid of Lyn Knoll. This is not a recommendation to convert Lyn Knoll into a charter.”

Even so, board members questioned the need to hand over some management of the school to an outside company or consultant.

“I’m concerned the district would entrust our school to a partner who’s unfamiliar with our population,” said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the board member who made the motion to reject the superintendent’s recommendation.

The alternate plan that the board approved was presented by the district’s joint steering committee, a group that oversees the district’s three pilot status schools, including Lyn Knoll. That recommendation was for the school to keep its current pilot status for another year under a set of conditions. The committee offered to watch over the school as they make changes, including some that are already in the works, such as the roll out of a new curriculum and new data planning.

Union President Bruce Wilcox, who is also a member of the committee, presented the opposing recommendation for Lyn Knoll, and told the board Tuesday that the decision would send a larger message to the Aurora community.

“Will the board make a fully informed decision or will the decision be made to move forward with a plan where the details remain a mystery to parents, community members, and teachers?” Wilcox asked the board before the decision. “This is about more that one school and one decision.”

Based on the district’s own policies, when a school earns a turnaround rating, the district reviews the school’s needs and prepares a recommendation for improvement which could include a number of options such as turning the school into a charter or into an innovation school with increased autonomy.

The school’s existing pilot status, a model that was created by former district leadership working with the district’s teachers union, already gives it some autonomy.

As part of the creation of that school model, a joint steering committee was created to oversee the pilot status schools.

Speaking for the committee, Wilcox said the loss of 12 teachers due to budget cuts may have contributed to the drop in performance, along with other factors

“They had undergone such a significant change last year in staffing and programming that we wanted to give them an opportunity,” Wilcox said.

Munn argued that his recommendation was not based on just one year’s data.

The board will later have to clarify how the district or the committee will oversee changes at the school.