The governing board of Aurora’s longest-running charter school is opposing the school district’s $300 million bond issue for building improvements, arguing that existing charter schools aren’t getting their fair share while a charter network from Denver stands to benefit.
At least one other Aurora charter school board has passed a resolution against the bond. In the Fort Collins-based Poudre School District, two charter schools are on record as opposing the district’s proposed bond and tax increase, also citing concerns about fairness.
Across the state in Durango, meanwhile, two schools overseen by the state’s only non-district charter school authorizer for the first time would share fully in the fruits of a proposed tax increase for school improvements in the district. Measures in the Denver and Cherry Creek districts give a generous cut to district charter schools, but with limitations.
These different approaches to charter school funding demonstrate Colorado’s hit-and-miss record of efforts to equitably fund charters, which receive tax dollars but are operated independently as tuition-free public schools. This year, voters across the state will decide a record-breaking $4 billion in local school bond and tax requests.
Like the broader debate over the place of charter schools in public education, the funding issue can divide communities. Questions about charter inclusion in bond and tax measures are connected to local politics, perceptions and conflicting legal interpretations — not to mention the difficulty of trying to prioritize needs at a time when state funding is far from adequate.
“There has definitely been a movement toward thinking and looking at charter school students as part of a district’s students,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “But every time you have that step forward, you have situations that are counteracting that. It’s still very much a mixed bag.”
Conflicting priorities in Aurora
Nowhere is the debate over charter inclusion more heated — or complicated — than in Aurora. The district has had a rocky relationship with charter schools, but that has changed as Superintendent Rico Munn seeks new ways to lift academic performance.
To prioritize building needs for its latest bond attempt, district officials solicited feedback from school leaders — including those at Aurora’s eight existing charter school campuses. Under state statute, districts must consider requests from all schools and weigh them against the criteria districts establish. But school bond and tax measures are not required to include charters.
Aurora Academy principal Pat Leger welcomed the opportunity. The first charter to open in Aurora, in 2000, the K-8 school uses Core Knowledge curriculum. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s and popular with political conservatives, the curriculum seeks to ensure students are grounded in facts from a specific body of knowledge to give them “cultural literacy.”
The student population at Aurora Academy is racially mixed. About half of the roughly 540 students qualify for government-subsidized lunches — a measure of poverty — and the school has been a top district performer on state standardized tests.
Yet, as Leger explains it, Aurora Academy has long since worn out its 1970s-era property, a former office building for a telecommunications company on a 3.2-acre site.
A school presentation to the district in November 2014 catalogs the needs:
The heating and air conditioning system is inefficient and expensive. The playgrounds are on asphalt and artificial turf. Teachers must rotate classrooms, and the music teacher has to haul his class material around on a cart. The second-floor school entrance is not secure.
School leaders estimated a remodel would cost $14.7 million, and a new school would run $20 million. Leger said the charter school ultimately sought about $2.9 million through the bond measure for its most pressing needs.
In the end, the district’s process identified $500 million in building, technology and safety needs across Aurora. Knowing that big of an ask was neither practical nor politically feasible, an advisory committee — a group that included two charter school representatives — recommended a $300 million bond measure and identified which requests should be included.
None of the proposed charter school capital improvements were deemed pressing enough to make the cut. Under the bond proposal approved by the Aurora school board for the Nov. 8 ballot, existing charters would receive money to improve technology (through a combination of infrastructure and hardware like laptops) and security (mostly security cameras).
Charter school operators point out that means existing charters will get less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the bond amount while educating about 11 percent of the district’s students.
Superintendent Munn said charters upset with the outcome are seeking special treatment.
“That position is fairly inconsistent with (charters’) desire to be treated like everybody else,” he said. “If you are like everybody else, you go through the process to get a ranking.”
Differing legal interpretations
But APS’s reasoning was not only about determining need. The district also is interpreting state statute as saying it can’t invest in capital projects when the district is second in line behind a principal creditor in being able to seize a building if a charter closes or fails to make payments.
“The simplest explanation is we can’t invest in something unless we can repossess it,” Munn said, adding that none of the district’s existing charter schools have title to their buildings.
In June, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and four of the district’s charters wrote a letter to the district challenging that interpretation. The letter argues that Colorado statute clearly allows funding charter capital needs, and that districts may take back property “following payment of all other debts secured by the capital construction.”
“I feel like it’s an excuse,” Leger, of Aurora Academy, said of the district’s position. “I don’t think they have legal standing. I think they want the money for themselves, and they figure we are surviving and they don’t want to share.”
The Aurora bond does include money to build a new middle and high school in northwest Aurora that Munn hopes will house a new charter school operated by DSST, a high-performing Denver charter network with a history of landing big donations from celebrities and foundations.
Munn has proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building, 50-50. DSST has indicated it would help with fundraising but wants the district to take the lead. The Aurora bond measure includes $12 million that would cover the district’s share.
Including a possible home for DSST angered charter school leaders such as Leger, who does not relish competing for students with a Denver-based network with a sparkling new building.
The DSST wrinkle also complicated the Aurora teachers’ union stance on the bond measure.
The union’s president, Amy Nichols, said the union officially supported the bond but had a difficult time deciding because of the DSST piece. Some teachers believe that as the charter draws students away from traditional schools — some of which are already facing enrollment declines — their schools could close and some teachers could end up without a job, she said.
Teachers at the schools with highest needs are campaigning for the bond, Nichols said, but the union isn’t leading those efforts and has only contributed $500 to the pro-bond campaign.
The governing boards of both Aurora Academy and Lotus School for Excellence, a nine-year-old charter, passed resolutions opposing the bond measure, called Issue 3C. A representative of Lotus did not respond to requests for further explanation.
Judy Ham, the board president of Vanguard Classical School, a charter school with two campuses in Aurora, said earlier this week the board was considering a resolution on the bond. (UPDATE, 11/7: Ham said the board did not vote on a resolution).
Munn called the opposition from some of the district’s charter schools disappointing.
“At the end of the day when you look at what we’ve done, this is the largest-ever investment in (Aurora) charter schools in this bond,” he said. “I think it’s kind of shortsighted for some of the charter schools to oppose that based on the idea that their projects aren’t being funded.”
Munn defended the inclusion of money that could help lure DSST as part of a strategy to build relationships with strong “communities of practices” with a record of success.
Sharing the pie
Other school districts are setting aside more for charter schools in their bond and tax measures.
In Jefferson County Public Schools, charter schools educate 10 percent of the district’s students and stand to get 10 percent of the $535 million bond. The charters are deciding how to divvy up the money amongst themselves with assistance from district staff, a district spokeswoman said.
The Cherry Creek School District’s $250 million bond includes roughly $5.5 million to cover gym and classroom improvements at Cherry Creek Academy, one of the district’s two charter schools. However, in the school district’s separate request for a tax increase — known as a mill-levy override — the charter would get only 50 percent of what a full contribution would be.
Denver Public Schools is also seeking a mill-levy override, and charters would get a share proportionate to student enrollment, said Dustin Kress, the district’s manager of bond and mill levy programs.
DPS’s $572 million bond — the largest bond local bond issue this year in Colorado — is a different story.
Unlike in Aurora, the vast majority of DPS charter schools are housed in district-owned or controlled buildings. About 80 percent of charter students attend classes in district buildings.
Some of the bond money — for technology and smaller-ticket items like paint and furniture — would go to all charters based on student count, Kress said. But the district is not investing bond proceeds in big capital projects for charters in non-district buildings, Kress said. That stance, he explained, is rooted not in a legal requirement but rather a district approach.
“The district feels that from a fiduciary perspective, investing bond funds in non-district facilities presents a risk to ensuring an appropriate return on taxpayer funds,” Kress wrote in an email.
Then there is the unique scenario playing out in Durango, in the state’s southwest corner.
In 2010, when the district last sought a mill levy override from voters, tensions ran high between district schools and two charter schools authorized by the Charter School Institute — Animas High School and Mountain Middle School.
Since then, the district-run schools and charter schools have staged joint homecoming dances, participate together in athletics and activities, and the school district is providing free transportation to charter school students on the buses criss-crossing the district.
“We have worked really hard on building relationships, opening communications, seeing all our kids in Durango as Durango kids,” said Superintendent Dan Snowberger, who is friendly to charter schools and other reform efforts, and took the job in 2012.
This year’s $1.7 million mill levy override would be shared equally with charters based on student counts. Typically, schools under the Charter School Institute, the state’s non-district charter authorizer, do not get a piece of any school district bond or mill levy override money.
Third-party polling in Durango has shown fully including charters in the proposed tax increase doesn’t make voters any more or less likely to support the bond, Snowberger said.
Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story described Cherry Creek Academy as the sole charter school in the Cherry Creek School District. We were living in the past. Heritage Heights Academy opened this year.