School choice is at stake in Aurora school board election

Charters are a key issue but candidates aren’t talking about them

Students sit at tables in a classroom, with a colorful circle-shaped rug dominating the photo.
Students sit in class during the first day of school at Virginia Court Elementary in Aurora. Six candidates are running for four open seats on the district school board. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Most of the six Aurora school board candidates are saying similar things: They’re lauding the city’s diversity, expressing an interest in improving equity, and promising to work toward pandemic recovery. But one issue separates them and they’re not talking about it much: charter schools.

The high-stakes issue has driven elections in Aurora in the past, though candidates often try to avoid being pinned down or labeled as pro- or anti-charter.

Union-backed board members who are more skeptical of charters have controlled the board in the last four years, but four of the seven seats on the board are up this year. Union and charter groups are both spending money to sway voters to candidates they hope might be more friendly to their vision of what school choice should look like in Aurora.

And the district is in the midst of rolling out a long-term facilities plan that would promote school choice among specialized district-run magnet schools, while charter advocates are eyeing the opportunities that Aurora’s eastward expansion could represent.

“There’s definitely an ongoing need for new high-quality education options,” said Dan Schaller, the board chair of Colorado League of Charter Schools Action, which is spending more than $100,000 on advertising for school board races this year. “I think that’s a need that exists in a number of different places but in Aurora especially, given the tremendous diversity. We feel strongly more education options are necessary, not less.”

Linnea Reed-Ellis, the president of the Aurora Education Association, said the union is always looking for candidates to support “neighborhood schools and keeping licensed teachers in classrooms.” The term “neighborhood schools” refers to traditional district-run schools.

The topic of charter schools and choice hasn’t been an issue at the few forums the Aurora school board candidates have participated in to date, and it’s not on their priority lists when they talk about why they’re running.

Incumbents Debbie Gerkin, Tramaine Duncan, and Michael Carter are endorsed by the teachers union. Two of the candidates the union did not endorse have charter school ties. 

Anne Keke has taught school at an Aurora charter school and Danielle Tomwing is a board member on the board of her daughter’s charter school. 

“It’s not about public schools versus charter schools,” Keke said earlier. “I don’t even think parents care what school type it is. All across we have failed. What can we do for students is the question now.”

Both Keke and Tomwing are receiving support from outside spenders including the Colorado League of Charter Schools Action; Raising Colorado, which receives funding from Education Reform Now Advocacy; and conservative group Ready Colorado Action.

Candidate Christy Cummings wasn’t endorsed by the union and has only received financial support from Ready Colorado Action. The psychologist and Aurora mom of three children said she’s running because she’s concerned about mental health issues brought on by COVID precautions. At one forum this month, she said that she doesn’t support mask and vaccine mandates in the district, because “I’m not an authoritarian.”

While Aurora schools are losing overall enrollment, as are many metro area districts, which in some cases can limit the viability of new charter schools, the Aurora district boundaries encompass vast areas of open land stretching out to the plains that are beginning to see new housing developments. As the district considers how to close small schools that are far under capacity on the west and now north sides of the city, it also will eventually have to build new schools out east.

Schaller, the board chair of the charter league’s action fund, pointed out that more than 15% of Aurora’s students already attend charter schools in the district. 

Of the 38,749 students enrolled in the district this fall, more than 6,200 are students attending nearly a dozen charter schools in the district. The number of students attending charters has gone up every year since at least 2015. 

“There’s a demand for these schools,” said Tyler Sandberg, co-founder and vice president for Ready Colorado. He said it’s why the group decided to support Aurora school board candidates who supported choice.

The four board members elected in 2017 as a union-backed slate that was expected to be less friendly to charter schools have attempted to close charter schools (those decisions were reversed by the state), and been more critical of new applications, including rejecting one application for an arts charter school that had a lot of community support.

Now, the district is in a planning year for its own arts magnet school that it hopes will attract students from across the district as part of the long-term Blueprint APS plan. 

When the district started outreach to create the Blueprint plan several years ago, surveys and forums showed that parents had an interest in more school choices and programs. 

In thinking about how to meet that need, one option was adding charter schools. But board members steered the district in a different direction, challenging Superintendent Rico Munn to create a system of choice that was made up of district-run schools. They asked for it to accompany busing that would make the schools a viable option for students from low-income families who often don’t participate in school choice because of limited transportation due to difficult family work schedules or lack of vehicle access.

At a candidate forum hosted by nonprofit YAASPA this week, students asked two board candidates how they would make transportation more equitable for students. 

Candidate Michael Carter, who’s supported by the union, said that not all students have access to all schools, and that access varies depending on where students live. He said students in some regions might need more buses.

“If it means there are more buses on the west side than there are on the east side, fine, but we have to remember the goal is to get kids in school,” Carter said. “If it just means getting more buses in an area where there are people who need it more, fine. That’s equity.”

Incumbent Debbie Gerkin, who also is supported by the union, floated an idea of having a second bus depot, so buses might have less of a distance to travel to make their routes. 

“That becomes especially important as we develop pathways for our magnet schools,” Gherkin said. “It’s not a choice if you can’t get there, so you need to be able to find ways to get kids to where they want to get to school.”

The new school board will oversee the plan rollout in the next few years. They’ll have to consider how the magnet schools will prioritize and choose students if there are more students than spots. If buses are provided to students who choose a magnet school, will transportation also be provided for students who make other school choices? What will the district do with empty school buildings? 

Recommendations for facility decisions go through the district’s Long Range Facilities Advisory Committee before they get to the board, and union and charter advocates both want a seat at the table. Former union president Bruce Wilcox and Kate Mullins, the executive director of Vega Academy, one of the charter schools Aurora attempted to close recently, were approved to serve on that committee earlier this month.

Whoever wins Tuesday’s election will have to make final decisions on school closures and new school recommendations, perhaps as soon as January.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the independent expenditure committee Raising Colorado.

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