this is the beginning

Aurora school board OKs Munn’s innovation zone

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

AURORA — The city’s school board gave Superintendent Rico Munn the green light Tuesday to advance his most ambitious school reform efforts yet.

But, school board members made clear, if Munn fails to garner community support he’ll need to go back to the drawing board.

Munn’s proposal is that Aurora Public Schools allow a group of schools to be freed from a variety of district and state policies, to accelerate student learning at some of it’s lowest performing schools, including Aurora Central High School. Known as innovation schools, those buildings and programs would have greater flexibility over its calendar, curriculum, budget and staff.

Aurora Central is at the heart of Munn’s plan, known as ACTION Zones, because the school’s time on the state’s “accountability clock” has run out. Aurora Central has been labeled as failing for five years by the Colorado Department of Education, because most students score below grade level on state tests. The school’s ACT scores and graduation rate are far below the state average.

APS has 17 other schools on the accountability watch list. And the entire district is at risk of losing its state accreditation if student achievement doesn’t improve.

Four other schools were identified by name in a memorandum of understanding APS officials will present to the State Board of Education later this month. The nonbinding document spells out Munn’s plan and timeline. However, after board members criticized Munn for not engaging those school communities, they were removed from the memorandum.

Data center
Find your school’s state rating here.

About a dozen teachers from Boston K-8, one of the schools named in the document, attended Tuesday’s board meeting. Two teachers thanked the district for not explicitly naming their school in the document. But Munn said Boston, which is also considered failing by the state, was still part of the plan.

Teachers and parents from Aurora Central also packed the board room.

Sharon Summers, an English teacher, told the school board that a group of teachers was working on ideas they hope can be incorporated into the final innovation plan.

While the most drastic changes won’t go into effect at Aurora Central and other schools until the 2016 school year, parents urged the board to move swiftly.

“I hate that I look at my daughter’s homework and know she can do it with her eyes closed,” said Erika Flores-Rowe, an Aurora Central parent. “I’d like to think it’s because she’s smart like her momma. But it’s because it’s super easy. She’s not being challenged. And I’m afraid of what will happen when she goes to college.”

In an earlier interview, Munn acknowledged parents’ concerns about the dire situation at Aurora Central. He said he’d be meeting with the school’s principal, Mark Roberts, in coming weeks to develop a plan for the fall.

With the school board’s OK, Munn and his team will begin establishing a variety of committees to craft plans for the schools, most in the Original Aurora neighborhood.

Under state law, for a school to receive innovation status from the state, a majority of the school’s parent accountability committee, teachers, and administrators have to sign off on the proposal.

“This will not work if we don’t have all the stakeholders at the table,” board president JulieMarie Shepherd said.

Other board members, who have been debating the issue publicly since February, said they were finally convinced innovation status would allow the district the greatest flexibility and community input.

“Even though we’ve been talking about this for seven or eight months, we’re at the beginning of the process — not the end,” Munn said.

APS memorandum of understanding with State Board of Education

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.