dollars and sense

Aurora school board to decide fate of cash-strapped charter school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems.

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education tonight will decide the fate of one of its charter schools that has just enough cash to operate until the end January.

The school board will decide whether to shutter the AXL Academy charter school at the end of the month, close it at the end of the school year, or extend its charter for 18 months so the school can possibly regain its financial footing.

At stake is what’s best for the 500 students of AXL —  about 90 percent of whom live inside the APS attendance boundaries — and the suburban school system’s own finances.

AXL officials, who met with the APS school board earlier this month, told board members that the financial shortfall was caused entirely by the school enrolling 100 fewer students than originally budgeted for.

According to the officials’ remarks at the APS school board meeting and in subsequent interviews with Chalkbeat Colorado, it appears most of the school’s staff, its board, and district officials were kept in the dark about the shortfall until after the state’s official count day in October.

Count day is one of the most important days of the school year. On this day, schools and districts report how many students are at their desks. Those numbers determine how much money school systems receive from the state for the entire school year. While AXL’s enrollment did increase this year, it still fell short of its growth projection of 600 students.

As a result of the enrollment shortfall. AXL received about $700,000 less than officials had projected.

AXL officials claim they have a plan to establish a solid fiscal foundation. They believe the kindergarten through eighth grade school should stay open because the school has growth potential. District-run expeditionary learning schools are popular in Aurora and have waiting lists.

AXL also meets or beats the district’s average student achievement results on state reading and writing tests, although those scores have slipped by double digit percentage points in the last three years and still lag behind the state’s average.

While the school, which has similar demographics to the district’s, has underperformed the district’s and state’s average in math, overall the school has earned the state’s highest rating a school can earn for the last three years.

Donny Wright, left, and his son, Trenton Wright, 12, were among the 200 AXL Academy charter school supporters who packed an Aurora Public Schools Board of Education meeting earlier this month. AXL Academy has enough money to operate through January. It's requesting an 18-month charter extension and loan from the APS.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Donny Wright, left, and his son, Trenton Wright, 12, were among the 200 AXL Academy charter school supporters who packed an Aurora Public Schools Board of Education meeting earlier this month. AXL Academy has enough money to operate through January. It’s requesting an 18-month charter extension and loan from the APS.

AXL officials hope an extension to the school’s charter will provide the campus a chance to move past its financial mistakes and refocus on teaching and learning.

“We don’t want to dwell on the past,”said Matt Wasserman, the school’s new board president, at the Dec. 2 APS board meeting. “We’ve made a clean break from the past. We want the ability to have a fresh star. This is a financial crisis. But it is not an academic crisis. … AXL is asking for what amounts to a second chance.”

Since late October, AXL’s school director, Audra Philippon has left. The school has restructured its administration team and board of directors, and also cut about $90,000 from its budget.

Philippon did not respond to a request for comment.

As part of its restructuring, the school has hired a charter school consulting firm for about $30,000.

“We’ve tried to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Brent Reckman, AXL’s co-principal, at the APS board meeting. “Cutting the Spanish team was the most difficult.”

It’s still unclear how only a select few of the school’s administrators knew about under enrollment problems and what specific systems will be in place by the end of the school year to prevent a similar budgeting problem going forward.

AXL is asking the district to defer about $315,000 in fees for district services and establish a credit line for about the same amount.

Part of the conversation tonight between AXL and the APS board will be to discuss what the financial trade-offs are for either keeping the school open or closing it.

“I need to have a real good idea about what it would cost the district for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year,” said Mary Lewis, an APS board member.

If the board agrees to float AXL a lifeline there is no guarantee the district will see the hundreds of thousands of dollars again. The school could ultimately close if it can’t boost its enrollment. Some families have already left since news about the financial hardship spread.

If AXL does shut down, any assets such as computers the school purchased with state tax dollars would become the property of APS, according to a spokeswoman with the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

This isn’t the first time AXL has had money woes. In the fall of 2013, APS sent a letter to the school claiming AXL was not in compliance with its charter contract due to concerns about its financial status and governance structure. But the school corrected course, APS officials pointed out to their board this month.

“We were here last year, but for different reasons,” said Rico Munn, APS’s superintendent. “As of June, we all felt good.”

While there have been signs the Aurora school board is becoming more friendly to charters, over the years it has earned a reputation of being anti-charter. While neighboring school districts like Denver Public Schools and Douglas County have been steadily opening charter schools, APS hasn’t authorized another charter school since AXL opened in 2008.

The APS board’s decision tonight could signal a greater openness to working with charter school or a closing of the ranks.

Aurora officials and board members earlier this month said they were happy the district and charter school officials were communicating through the entire process. And many board members praised the school for rallying parent support. More than 200 parents, teachers, and students packed the modest APS board room earlier this month to show support for the school.

If the board decides to shut down the school at the end of the month, all AXL students — regardless of what school district they live in — would be able to choose an APS school to attend so long as a seat was available.

AXL’s parent Max Garcia’s  three students would likely finish the school year at their neighborhood school, Jewel Elementary. But he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I believe in the expeditionary learning model,” he said. “If they close the school, it’d break my heart. I volunteer there. I teach the cooking club. I know a lot of the kids on a first name basis.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that 90 percent of AXL students live inside the Aurora Public Schools boundary. 


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.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.