A big decision facing Aurora school board candidates: How to handle shifting enrollment

As voters in Aurora consider the five candidates running for three seats on the district’s school board Tuesday, one issue that could play a role is how to cope with shifting district enrollment.

The issue, brought on by a drastic drop in enrollment that Aurora Public Schools has seen in the last few years plus planned growth in other areas, has been discussed at forums and was identified by several candidates as one of the biggest problems facing the district.

Candidates have various opinions including two who believe the district is on the right track toward creating a long-term plan. Others are concerned the district isn’t involving the community enough in planning. And one expresses fears about carving up the district by income levels.

The district began a process known as its Blueprint work more than a year ago to plan for accommodating changes in enrollment. Most recently, officials approved a map that divided the district into seven regions. (See the map below).

Within each region, the district is convening a group of parents, educators and students, who will provide feedback about what educational focus the region is most interested in. Then the district will consider those requests, and bring recommendations to the school board that could include merging schools, repurposing schools to serve other needs, building new schools to accommodate growth, or adding magnet schools to provide district-managed school choices.

The new board members will get a say in those decisions this spring, including what exactly repurposing means. Some fear it includes school closure.

The five candidates include two past board members, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick; two candidates who are being endorsed by the teachers union, Stephanie Mason and Vicki Reinhard; and Nichelle Ortiz, who works as a health promotion facilitator for the University of Colorado Anschutz campus.

Yamrick said she’s been talking to people, mostly in her neighborhood in north Aurora, and most are not aware of the work the district is doing, especially seniors and millennials.

“They feel disconnected,” Yamrick said.

If she’s elected to the board, Yamrick said she is interested in pushing to create three councils to provide input to the board and the district, including one made up of parents, and one made up of students, representing school communities across Aurora.

Mason, whose children graduated from Aurora schools, and who now has grandchildren in the district, said she is concerned about what she knows of the district’s work so far, especially looking at the lines drawn to divide the district into regions.

“If you look at this map and you see the divisions,” Mason said, “all I see is redlining.”

Current board members had concerns about the map as well, although none used that term. The district officials said they created the regions based on school boundaries and major dividing landmarks such as highways, although the regions don’t stick to those divisions perfectly.

Mason also said she is concerned about possible school closures, what “repurposing” might mean, and magnet schools that might limit enrollment. Though she said she can’t say how she would vote, she’s interested in first making sure schools have had the resources to be successful.

“Every parent wants their kid to have a quality education,” Mason said. “If you have a choice to go across town and you can do it, the parents are going to do that. But if you were giving that school the resources it needed for high-quality teachers, social workers and mental health resources, those parents would not have to leave to go across town.”

Reinhard, the second union-backed candidate, and a retired teacher who is still working as a substitute teacher in the district, said that she is also concerned about the possibility of schools closing.

“I would be very close to telling you that closing schools is a nonstarter for me,” Reinhard said. “I just don’t want to see a neighborhood or a community without access to schools in their own neighborhood.”

She is, however, interested in learning more about what repurposing could look like, and said she would be in support of ideas such as bringing workforce programs into buildings that have extra space, or creating magnet schools, so long as they are available to all students. Reinhard added that she wants to make sure transportation is at the forefront of the conversations too, so that access isn’t a problem with any changes.

Both Ortiz and Drevon, who have done some campaigning together and are supported by the same independent expenditure committee, the Colorado Progressive Network, say the district has done good work so far.

Drevon participated in early work in the process, brainstorming ideas for the future of the district as part of a task force, which she said gives her a headstart on understanding the work. But Drevon said she would like to see more parent engagement and said the district must keep improving communication.

Most candidates agree that the district’s idea of “repurposing” schools isn’t clear to most in the community. For some, it has raised fears that schools could be closed, or turned over to charters.

“I think it’s something we need to continuously talk about and keep putting out there what the ideas for repurposing are,” Drevon said. “Just to alleviate some fears.”

Ortiz believes the district has made plenty of effort to engage parents, but said the community has a responsibility too.

“That work just needs to continue,” Ortiz said. “This is not a point where we start to slack. The community has a responsibility to also come out and participate but they have to feel welcome and have to feel engaged.”

Ortiz has said she is running because she hopes her Hispanic background can help more people in the community feel represented and comfortable approaching the board. More than 54% of Aurora students are identified as Hispanic.

“In order to have a voice, the community needs to come to the table,” Ortiz said. “I hope they’re hearing the call to action.”