changing suburbs

Aurora’s shrinking enrollment: District blames gentrification, prepares to cut budget

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Aurora Public Schools is preparing to slash $3 million from its budget in the face of its largest enrollment decline in decades, a sign that the metro area’s skyrocketing housing costs are transforming what has long been an affordable alternative for low-income families.

The number of students who showed up at Aurora schools this fall was less than school district officials had expected, especially in lower-income schools. That hurts on two fronts – it means less state per-pupil funding, and less money earmarked for students in poverty.

Current unofficial student counts put the number of Aurora Public Schools students this fall at 41,926, down from 42,569 in 2015. That would represent the district’s largest enrollment decline in at least 46 years.

“It’s extremely hard to predict housing conditions in Aurora,” Josh Hensley, planning coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, said at a school board meeting this week. “Recent changes have been very abrupt. We went from seeing the largest increases to the largest decline in a matter of a couple of years.”

For decades, Aurora was known as an affordable Denver suburb — a large, diverse city that in places has unrecognizable borders with its neighbors. But housing costs are rising. The website Zillow, which tracks rentals and house sales, estimates Aurora rents have increased 14.3 percent over the past year.

“It appears to have gotten to the point where most modest families can no longer afford to live here,” Hensley said. “We’re becoming less affordable quicker than the metro area.”

Chris Maraschky, executive director of Aurora’s Housing Authority, said that rents in the city are at an all-time high and affordable housing is in high demand, but there’s not enough. The waitlist for Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income families pay rent hasn’t been opened since 2005.

“Aurora is relatively affordable compared to Denver,” Maraschky said. “I know that doesn’t help if someone is making $12 an hour. Compared to where we were four years ago, things are not affordable.”

According to the district’s research, people need to make about $1,077 a month and $43,000 a year to afford Aurora’s median rent with no burden.

Lisa Jones, a 48-year-old who left her children’s father in March, said she is struggling to find housing in Aurora. Although she is trying to keep her kids in their Aurora schools, she doesn’t know how much longer she will.

“I really don’t want to displace my children,” Jones said. “I really, really don’t.”

For now Jones is living with her four children — two school-aged — and three grandchildren at her parents’ house in Aurora. Jones said her son at South Middle School and her daughter at Aurora Central High School are thriving and have been on honor roll and in student council. Her son also plays the violin.

Every day, Jones and her kids look for a new place to rent.

“It is ridiculous,” Jones said. “Before, honestly I could sit down and look and within two weeks I could find something. It’s not there now. It’s so different.”

Aurora Public Schools’ projections of student enrollment were off by 643 students and were most incorrect for the number of young students in elementary schools. That’s significant because as those kids grow up, their grade levels may remain small and continue to have an impact on schools for a longer period of time.

School district staff laid out the potential budget impact at a school board meeting Tuesday. The short-term plan is to make cuts in every department at the district level, to put more building maintenance projects on hold and to keep any money that schools had intended to carry over from their allocated budgets last year.

Board members had a lengthy discussion, urging the superintendent to be selective about which district departments take cuts, and by how much, based on the services they provide to the district, teachers or students.

“When you take a flat cut, it doesn’t play to how we approach equity in this district,” said board president Amber Drevon.

A small portion of the enrollment decline in Aurora schools could also be due to families sending their kids out of the district to other schools — mostly in Denver.

Last year, the number of Aurora students opting out of the district rose to more than 4,800, up from around 3,400 each of the previous four years. The state has not posted the current year’s numbers.

Staff told the board that tax revenues they thought they would get from the city also haven’t reached expectations.

Despite the cuts, the Aurora school board on Tuesday approved on first reading a new contract for teachers that includes a 1.2 percent salary increase starting in January and a promise that the district will pick up the increases in health insurance costs and pension payments.

The district will revisit teacher raises if voters in November approve a $300 million bond increase.

The district introduced the ballot measure in August, citing a need for a new school to relieve overcrowding in northwest Aurora and maintenance repairs at several schools. If passed, the bond measure would also add classrooms at some schools, including Aurora Central High School and Rangeview High School.

The recent enrollment drops don’t change those needs, officials say.

“From a capacity standpoint, it does not provide us any significant relief as a district,” Hensley said.

That’s because school breakdowns of enrollment show an almost east-west divide in the city. Most schools in the western part of Aurora that border Denver, including Lowry and other neighborhoods, are losing kids. A charter school, the Lotus School for Excellence, is an exception.

The following map illustrates the divide. Click on a pin to identify schools and learn about their enrollment trends:

Farther east, near the neighborhoods of Buckley Air Force Base, schools such as Hinkley High School and Vista Peak continue to grow.

Looking to the coming years, officials are now expecting more budget cuts — and in the next round, schools and teachers would not be shielded from the impact.

Enrollment eventually will stabilize and may grow again, officials predict, but the city could look different by then.

“Aurora has lots of developable land,” Hensley said. “There are several hundred homes being completed,” many of them with more expensive price tags than what has been the norm in Aurora.

open discussion

In renewing superintendent’s contract, Aurora board president says he didn’t run to ‘fire Rico’

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

Aurora’s school board had a last-minute discussion Tuesday about the superintendent’s contract before a 6-1 vote to approve a two-year contract extension.

It was the first time every board member spoke publicly about the process, the district’s future, and their confidence in Superintendent Rico Munn. Many praised the superintendent’s skills, but then talked about concerns that the district’s culture needs to change.

“Open communication and trust are sorely lacking,” said board member Debbie Gerkin. “We need a superintendent who will dramatically change the climate. Is that Rico Munn? It might be. I want it to be, but so far, I have to be honest, I haven’t seen that particular skill set demonstrated and that concerns me.”

The board had announced more than a month ago that it was renewing the contract. Two weeks ago, the board gave a nod, without public discussion, to the draft contract extension, with the final vote set for Tuesday.

When it came time to vote, board members, the majority of whom were elected on a union-backed slate in November, said they wanted to go on the record with their thinking. Board president Marques Ivey said he had received calls from voters who said they thought he had run for the school board in order “to fire Rico.”

Ivey disputed that idea and asked voters to give the new board a chance to do their job, assuring the public the board would not be a rubber stamp for Munn’s ideas.

“The concerns you’ve expressed to us and your anger, it’s felt by this board,” Ivey said. “We know about it. Believe me, we have discussed it.”

Board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the sole vote against extending Munn’s contract, said she has been “extremely frustrated” recently.

“I ran on transparency, and it’s obvious that’s lacking,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I am concerned about that.”

Munn was first hired in 2013, and his contract is set to expire this summer.

The four union-allied board members ran in part on their opposition to the expansion of charter schools, as well as on greater equity and transparency.

Union leaders and many teachers had been vocal in their disapproval of Munn’s reform plans, especially two involving charter schools. In 2016, the district closed a low-performing elementary, and brought in a Denver charter school to take over the school.

Then later that year, Munn invited high-performing DSST to open a charter school in Aurora, offering to pay for at least half the costs of a new building to house them with bond money voters later approved.

At the last board meeting, two weeks ago, one teacher who spoke during public comment told the board that he was disappointed members were planning to renew Munn’s contract.

“Frankly we voted you guys in, or four of you, in the hopes that this would change,” the teacher told the board. “To hear that you’re keeping the leadership in place is very disappointing.”

The new board, in its short time in office, has had disagreements with Munn. Earlier this year, the board rejected Munn’s proposed turnaround plan for an elementary school that earned the lowest quality rating this year. The board also criticized Munn recently for the process around budget cuts at the district level.

Veteran board members said they felt confident Munn could improve on the changes the board requested.

shot callers

Rico Munn’s inner circle: Meet the team leading Aurora’s district improvements

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

In five years as Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn has brought lots of change to a district that is one of the most diverse in the state and now gentrifying.

The district has become a place that is more open to charter schools, that has more flexibility for schools, and that has recently shown enough improvement to get off of the state’s watchlist for low-performance.

Recently, more change came with the election of four new union-backed union-backed board members after a campaign that saw more outside money than in any recent years.

The district still faces significant challenges, like declining enrollment and the task of improving academic achievement at several schools that are low-performing, including Aurora Central High School, which is now on a state-ordered plan for improvement.

The school board has offered Munn a two-year contract extension. A vote on that contract is set for Tuesday. Munn recently filled one of his cabinet positions after having an interim in the position since September when former chief academic officer, John Youngquist, left to return to Denver Public Schools.

With new members on Munn’s leadership team, officials are embarking on several significant projects, including writing a budget for next school year and working on a process to create a new strategic plan to guide the district through enrollment changes. Some schools have declining enrollment while the city rapidly expands on its eastern boundaries.

Here is a look at the seven people who report directly to Munn who are working on those projects, based on information provided by the district.

Marcelina Rivera

Marcelina Rivera, chief of strategic management
Salary: $160,121
Job description: To provide leadership, direction, and guidance for the chiefs of finance, human resources, support services, and the director of accountability and research. Leads the work related to how human and material resources are used to support the teaching and learning initiatives in the district. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive resource support for the academic improvement of all students. Aligns work with the chief academic officer. Drives the work in the school district’s strategic plan.

Bio: Rivera took the Aurora position in 2015. She has a law degree and previously worked at Yale Law School. Most recently, Rivera owned her own consulting firm, was an adjunct lecturer in English as a Second Language at the University of Denver, served as executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and was assistant superintendent and general counsel to The New America Schools.

Andre Wright, chief academic officer

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Salary: $171,000
Job description: Responsible for providing leadership, direction, and guidance for the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operations of the Division of Equity in Learning. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive academic improvement for all students. Leads the work to provide school-specific support to roll out district initiatives. Aligns work with the chief of strategic management on use of human and material resources.

Bio: Wright was appointed interim chief academic officer in September. Prior to the appointment, Wright served as a director of learning, overseeing a group of 10 schools since July 2014. Before coming to Aurora, Wright was area executive director for the Northeast Learning Community in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal, instructional leader and assistant principal and first began his education career teaching middle school language arts.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith, chief personnel officer
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for coordinating all employment issues for the district, including overseeing all personnel budgets, troubleshooting issues, negotiating contracts with the local bargaining unit, recruiting, training, allocating, evaluating, and terminating staff. Also responsible for writing, revising, and rolling out policy and procedures, and representing the Human Resources Department on committees, boards, and councils.

Bio: Smith took over his current position in 2011, but has worked in public education for 26 years, serving as a school social worker, dean of students, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator in the Denver and Aurora school districts. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from the University of Denver. Smith is also a graduate of Aurora Public Schools and has been a member of the Aurora community since 1975.

Patti Moon

Patti Moon, chief communications officer
Salary: $136,171
Job description: Provide leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining proactive planning and communication outputs for district initiatives. Continually coordinate, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas and situations and communicate these items in easy-to-understand language. Also required to effectively communicate, negotiate, and advise. Also provides communications or public relations training, counsel, and advice to schools and departments.

Bio: Moon joined Aurora as the public information officer in March 2014. She was named the chief communications officer in February 2017. Prior to working for the district, Moon was a television journalist who worked in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. She was a TV reporter and anchor working on stories on a wide range of topics including education, health, and crime. Moon earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. She is fluent in Korean and speaks French conversationally. Moon is a Colorado native who graduated from Lakewood High School.

Brandon Eyre

Brandon Eyre, legal counsel
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for providing legal services to the Board of Education and district administration. Supervises outside counsel doing the same. Communicate to appropriate staff any changes, updates, and recent interpretations of school and employment law. Conduct legal research and draft legal documents including contracts, policies, and correspondence. Supervises the district’s internal auditor.

Bio: Eyre came to Aurora in 2012 from Oregon where he was a partner at Baum, Smith and Eyre, LLC. Eyre’s practice focused primarily on municipal law and served clients throughout eastern Oregon. He represented public sector clients such as the La Grande School District, Union Baker Education Service District and the cities of Elgin, North Powder and Joseph, Oregon. Brandon earned his degrees from Brigham Young University.

Anthony Sturges, chief operations officer

Anthony Sturges

Salary: $182,497
Job description: Responsible for providing administrative and logistical direction and leadership to create and maintain safe, adaptable, and highly functional school and work environments. Serves as incident commander of the incident response team and is the district’s liaison to City of Aurora first responder groups including police and fire departments. Supervises the operational activities of athletics and activities, construction management and support, information technology, maintenance and operations, planning, security, transportation, and facility rental.

Bio: Sturges is a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora. He started working as a U.S. History and American Government teacher at Denver’s East High School in 1988 and came back to Aurora in 1993 to teach Honors U.S. History at Rangeview High School and then served as the Dean of Students at Aurora Central High School. From 1998 to 2002, he served as assistant principal for Thunder Ridge High School. In 2002, he became Aurora’s human resources director. Sturges has been in his current position since 2005.

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer
Salary: $162,993
Job description: Responsible for advising the superintendent and school board on the financial and budget matters of the district. Also prepares and administers the district budget, guides the development of long-term capital financing methods, directs and supervises all business or finance functions including, but not limited to, risk management, budgeting, and grants management while adhering to district policies and procedures.

Bio: Johnson took over the district’s finance department in March 2017. Prior to working for the Aurora district, Johnson served as the director of the office of major project development for the Colorado Department of Transportation. At CDOT, he explored new methods to finance and procure major transportation projects. He has also worked as the deputy treasurer for Colorado and as the finance manager for the Governor’s Energy Office. During his time as deputy treasurer, Johnson focused on banking, investment, and accounting services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Colorado.