narrow approval

Aurora school board approves charter school being eyed as replacement for struggling elementary

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A divided Aurora school board Tuesday narrowly approved the application of a Denver-based charter school seeking to replace a struggling elementary school in northwest Aurora.

The seven-member board voted 4-3 to approve Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter application. However, the board did not vote on a contract that would allow Rocky Mountain Prep to take over the low-performing Fletcher Community School starting with preschool this fall.

Instead, the board discussed doing so at a special meeting as early as next week.

Typically, Aurora Public Schools has 90 days after it approves a charter school’s application to negotiate a contract with that school, Superintendent Rico Munn explained to the board. In this instance, APS sped up that timeline, both to address board members’ concerns about what the contract would look like and because the district’s plan calls for Rocky Mountain Prep to start offering preschool at Fletcher in August.

Several parents and community members spoke in favor of the plan.

“I realize that Rocky Mountain Prep shares the same hope and idea that we as immigrants share,” said Alfonse Nde, a member of the African Leadership Group, a nonprofit organization based in Aurora. “We need better schools and better education for our kids.”

Daniella Gutierrez lives in Aurora but sends her two children and two of her nieces and nephews to Rocky Mountain Prep in Denver. She told the board about a recent conversation the children had at the dinner table: “What is something that made your day great?” they asked each other. “And what is a strategy you could have used to make your day better?”

She credits that conversation to the skills they’re learning at school.

“I am asking you support Rocky Mountain Prep so the other children in my community receive a quality and rigorous education,” Gutierrez said.

A few speakers urged the board to reject the charter school. Fletcher teacher Abby Cillo said it feels as though APS is giving up.

“Fletcher is not just a school,” she said. “The people there are not just a test score. We are not deemed failing to ourselves.”

Board member Cathy Wildman voted against Rocky Mountain Prep. She said that while she has supported charter school applications in the past, she feels as though the district didn’t do a good job engaging Fletcher parents and teachers in coming up with a plan to improve academic performance at the school, which has struggled since it opened in 2000. Fletcher serves mostly low-income students.

“I wish we had said to the community: ‘We want you to solve the problem,’” Wildman said.

But board president Amber Drevon said that while she agrees the district could have done a better job, “I cannot in good conscience sit back even one more year and allow what is happening at Fletcher to happen.”

Last year, only 2 percent of third graders met or exceeded state expectations on the inaugural PARCC English exam. At the same time, not a single third grader was proficient in math.

The proposed contract calls for Rocky Mountain Prep to gradually replace the current program. In 2016-17, it says the charter school will serve preschool students. Under the direction of a new principal, Fletcher will continue to serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

By 2017-18, the proposal says Rocky Mountain Prep will serve students in preschool through second grade, adding third grade in 2018-19 and fourth and fifth grades in 2019-20.

The proposed contract also addresses several concerns raised by board members, APS officials said Tuesday. For instance, it specifies that the charter school would be required to accept all children who live in the Fletcher boundary. The contract also says APS would provide transportation for Rocky Mountain Prep students “to the extent it can be coordinated with existing Fletcher transportation routes.”

Under the proposed contract, APS would also continue to operate a program for students with autism at the Fletcher campus unless and until the school district and Rocky Mountain Prep agree the charter school should take over that program, as well.

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.