Elected as charter skeptics, Aurora school board members face a more complicated reality

When an independent teacher decided she wanted to open an arts school in Aurora for black and brown students who weren’t getting into other arts programs, she found a lot of community support.

But the Aurora school board last week voted 6 to 1 to reject the proposed school — the latest decision from the board led by a union-backed slate elected in 2017.

Anger about charter schools helped fuel the election of four new members who became a majority on the seven-member Aurora school board. Their positions, questioning charters and worrying about the potential economic drain on the district, raised questions about how they would change the district’s relationship with charter schools.

More than a year and a half in, their record shows a mixed bag — an approval of two new charters, one denial, an attempted closure of one charter, and a renewal of another.

Board members say their positions, which they don’t consider anti-charter, haven’t changed. But their understanding of how much control they have, has.

“The State Board is going to get a bite at the apple,” Aurora board President Marques Ivey said. “They basically said we don’t care so much what the local board thinks or feels. They don’t care so much about the unintended consequences. That’s more apparent now to us as a board.”

Aurora was seen as unfriendly to charter schools for many years. Under Superintendent Rico Munn, the district created a review process for charter applications, and invited two charter schools into the district — one to open in a new building, with the district covering half the cost, and another to take over a struggling elementary school.

According to district figures, there were approximately 5,213 Aurora students in district charter schools last fall, or about 13.7 % of all students. Next year, that number is projected to go up to more than 6,000 students, even as enrollment in district-run schools is expected to decrease.

The two charter schools the board approved are slated to open this fall in northwest Aurora, an area of declining enrollment. In addition, the first school in Aurora run by the Denver-based DSST, Aurora Science and Tech, will open this fall. That school was approved by the previous board.

The current board also initially voted in February to close Vega Collegiate Academy, after hearing district findings that the charter school was violating the law in educating students with special needs. Asked by the State Board to reconsider, Aurora reversed itself but added several conditions, including a call for a new investigation into the school.

The board renewed the contract of another charter school, the high-performing Vanguard, despite the school’s conflict-of-interest issues and management problems.

The district recently succeeded in closing HOPE Online’s computer-based learning centers in Aurora. Although the superintendent, and not the board, made that decision, board members did not object when consulted beforehand.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union, who helped get the four board members, including Ivey, elected, said he wishes more had changed, but put some of the blame on the State Board.

“I don’t think the pendulum direction has changed,” Wilcox said. “There have been a couple of instances where they have pushed back on charter schools this year…only to have it overturned. It weakens a school board.”

Outside observer Van Schoales, executive director of the advocacy organization A-Plus Colorado, said the district doesn’t seem to be consistent.

“I’d say it’s gotten better, but it’s still problematic,” Schoales said. “It’s more about picking favorites.”

Even before the current board took office, Aurora Public Schools had been working on changing how it works with charter schools.

Over the past four years, the district created a process and has continually revised how it reviews charter applications and renewal proposals. Now, the district’s Office of Autonomous Schools and three teams that include community members, district staff, and other charter school leaders review each application.

Superintendent Munn said he considers his district to be “one of the best technical authorizers in the state.”

Leaders of Vega Collegiate Academy, the high-performing charter that the Aurora school board attempted to close this year, criticized how the district handled the review of their program.

Leaders of the Visions Performing Arts College, which was denied last week, also see flaws in the review of their proposal.

“We feel like the process was biased,” said Auset Ali, founding executive director of the proposed Vision Performing Arts Company. “APS tends to feed into the narrative that charters are not to be in partnership with the district.”

Munn said each application is reviewed on its own merits, and not all charters are the same.

“One of the things we have seen from a lot of the people who propose charters and a lot of the organizations and entities around these, is they always come to us and expect us to think and act like Denver,” Munn said. “We’re not Denver. Because we do think differently doesn’t mean it’s unfair. If they walk into us expecting us to do it like Denver, they’re going to be disappointed.”

Denver, where a quarter of students attend these publicly funded but independently run schools, has the highest number of charter schools in the state, and the district treats the schools as partners, often offering them space in district buildings.

Aurora school board members have praised their charter review process, but have also pushed the district, asking if it could be more clear about a strategy on charter schools.

“What we do right now is look at each charter school as it comes up,” said board member Debbie Gerkin, who was elected in 2017. “We will review that going forward.”

The district’s draft of its long-term facilities and education plan, called Blueprint APS, sought to describe the district’s relationship with charters. But drafts remain vague.

“The language is a little bit nebulous at this point,” two-term board member Dan Jorgensen said at a board meeting. “I’d also like to think about how do we include them within the family of schools, and really engage them — not just when things aren’t going right.”

Munn defended the draft plan and said it is based on what he’s heard from the community and the board. The board did not want to actively compete with charters, but also isn’t counting on them to provide choices for district students, which is similar to how the district already operates.

The requirements for applying to run a charter school in Aurora already go beyond the state requirements. For instance, the district has recently added a requirement for interested charter leaders to talk about how they will impact the neighborhoods they plan to serve.

The arts school denied this month failed “to address the three new charter schools opening in fall 2019, all of which are serving the Northwest quadrant,” according to the district’s evaluation.

State law says districts are required to make their decision based on “the best interests of the pupils, the district, and the community,” which is then evaluated by the State Board on appeals.

Board members have floated the idea that the district itself could be offering schools similar to the models that charter schools present. They also suggest that as the district plans to create magnet schools, broaden school boundaries, and potentially close some schools, it could find opportunities to offer more types of schools.

But some are concerned that the district will be financially limited in what choice schools it can provide and when.

“I personally do think it’s appropriate to partner with our charter schools to fulfill what the district may be lacking in,” Ivey said. But he added that he would like more controls in the charter contracts to ensure schools are held accountable. “If we’re going to truly call them public schools we have to make sure the public truly has more say.”

After their recent vote to deny the arts school, board members apologized and asked Ali to work on the application and try again next year. She is planning to appeal the decision, but worries that even if the State Board allows her school to open, she’ll be entering a hostile environment where the district doesn’t support her students.

And if the school doesn’t open, she’s considering a run for school board this year.

“The district misses this opportunity,” Ali said. “Whether you’re anti-charter or not, the schools are serving students and there’s a need for collaboration to happen.”