Remaking Aurora

Aurora may build new school to handle overcrowding

The Aurora Public Schools’ Board of Education is considering several options — including a new school — to curb overcrowding in its schools.

Kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora react during a recent math lesson.
Kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora react during a math lesson. EdNews File Photo

Administrators called the recommendations presented Tuesday night an “urgent need.”

Two-thirds of Aurora’s elementary and middle schools are at least at 90 percent capacity, including mobile classrooms. The district is projecting its enrollment will climb by 2 percent annually for the next four years.

“Even if we hired more teachers, we wouldn’t have anywhere to put them,” said Vista Peak Exploratory School Principal Melanie Moreno at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Vista Peak Exploratory, which serves pre-school through eight grade, has converted common areas and staff workrooms into classrooms, Moreno said. The campus also utilizes a set of mobile classrooms.

The board, including three new members who were sworn in earlier in the evening, heard a report from a slate of district officials detailing the work done throughout the year, including two public forums and various districtwide surveys, that led them to their recommendations.

The district is recommending that it build a new school, which could seat nearly 1,000 students between pre-school and eighth grade, near Sixth Avenue and Airport Boulevard; realign school boundaries; purchase additional mobile classrooms and reallocate existing facilities; use about $2.2 million of existing bond money to use throughout 2016 as need occurs; and design a larger Mrachek Middle School with money that had been previously earmarked for renovations.

The suggested school would need to be, at least initially, financed through the public sector. The district is recommending using Certificate of Participation, or COP, dollars.

A COP is a lease-finance mechanism that some school districts and other government agencies have used in the past for new construction. Individuals, but most likely banks and hedge funds, purchase the certificates and collect interest on the note until the district has paid down the loan.

Aurora used COP dollars to finance the renovation of Aurora Central High School in 1988. The district does not have the option to ask voters for a bond increase until at least 2016 because its already at its legal bond limit, officials said.

However, the district already has its eyes on another bond question as soon as possible and hopes to ask voters to approve enough money to close out the COP deal. The district believes initial interest-only payments would be a little more than $1 million. Annual payments could triple, however, if the district were unable to secure a bond and was forced to pay down the principal out of its general fund.

District stakeholders who testified Tuesday night were generally in favor of the district’s recommendation.

John Dale, a retired APS employee and chair of the district’s 2008 bond committee, said the recommendations were “very creative, very good. We strongly support it.”

But there were some broader concerns raised during public comment.

Tollgate Elementary School Principal Laurie Godwin asked the board to develop a longterm districtwide solution to overcrowding. Her school is currently at 106 percent capacity and is expected to see similar enrollment numbers for the next five years, she said.

In Godwin’s opinion, the recommendations made Tuesday night only helps the eastern part of the district along E-470. The district, using housing permits, is forecasting exponential growth along the corridor.

“There’s no relief for us,” she said.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board he hopes the realignment of boundaries after the new school is built will address Tollgate’s concerns.

Karen Porter, chair-elect of the District Accountablity Community, echoed Godwin.

“What you’re experiencing today, you’re going to experience in three years,” she said.

Poter also warned the board to not bet on another bond to pay off the school construction.

The board is expected to make a formal recommendation at its Dec. 17 meeting. If the board moves forward with the option to build a new school, it should be opened by the 2015 school year.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct location for the new school proposed at Tuesday’s Aurora Public Schools’ board meeting. It has also been updated with the correct spelling on Mrachek Middle School’s name. 


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.