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. 

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

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

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.