New school option

Mike Miles, former superintendent in Colorado and Dallas, opening charter school in northwest Aurora

Mike Miles, former superintendent of Harrison schools, visits a classroom in this file photo.

Former district superintendent Mike Miles, whose reforms in Dallas and Colorado Springs stirred controversy, is set to open a new charter school in Aurora this fall serving at-risk kids.

The Academy of Advanced Learning will borrow strategies Miles has employed elsewhere, including keeping school doors open early and late to help ease families’ child care burden, and differentiating pay for teachers based on their roles so the school can afford extra staff.

“I knew I wanted to continue to be engaged in public education,” said Miles, the school’s CEO. “Public education is the most important work of our time. I’m just convinced of that.”

Others helping with the school’s launch include former state education commissioner Dwight Jones and Kevin Smelker, a former chief operations officer for the Dallas district.

The Aurora school board approved the Academy of Advanced Learning in June. The charter school, which will be near 6th Avenue and Sable Boulevard in northwest Aurora, will open with kindergarten through sixth grade students and add seventh and eighth graders the following year.

The school will follow a model similar to Pikes Peak Prep in Colorado Springs. The school hired Miles last year to make improvements, and he is now its CEO.

The Aurora school will pay teachers different salaries based on the importance of their roles. For example, a reading teacher — expected to help students make large gains to get to reading at grade level — could make $80,000 per year while a physical education teacher would make about $45,000 annually. Most districts don’t differentiate teacher pay by subjects taught, but may give bonuses for hard-to-staff positions.

It’s something Miles says he knows not everyone will agree with, like many of the reforms he has had a hand in over the last decade.

Miles is working to open the Aurora charter school a year after returning to Colorado after leaving his superintendent job in Dallas with two years left on his contract. During his time in Dallas, Miles made headlines for creating new evaluations for teachers and principals and for firing three principals after the district’s school board voted to keep them.

“If you’re going to prioritize resources, high-quality instruction, whatever you’re going to prioritize, that’s a very political act,” Miles said. “When you prioritize you make some people feel like they’re not a priority. If you want to please everyone, don’t be a superintendent.”

Before the Dallas job, Miles had been superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs for six years. In that role, he led the district to adopt one of the first teacher pay-for-performance models in the state that tied salary and raises to annual evaluations.

Tammy Clementi, a former chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools who now works as a consultant and is on the founding board of the charter school, said she is aware of the criticisms of Miles over the years but believes they are a reaction to his drastic changes.

“I’ve worked with Mike, he was my boss and anytime somebody has approached me with ‘Oh Mike Miles?’ I’ve always said, ‘If you’re working hard and you’re doing your job, you don’t have anything to worry about,’” Clementi said. “He is all about holding folks accountable. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Clementi said even though she was unsure about joining a board for a charter school, she was persuaded by a model that will focus on serving at-risk students and that won’t pick and choose its students.

If more students enroll than the school has room for, the school will hold a lottery.

School officials say the Aurora school will focus on at-risk students through the educational model and by providing them a reliable — and free — place to hang out before and after school.

The school promises to have staff at the building from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every school day — as it the case at Pikes Peak Prep — so parents who work don’t have to leave kids home alone. Students can sign up for after-school activities, receive tutoring, get help with homework or just watch television.

The school doors will be open on snow days when classes are cancelled.

“We’ll close if Starbucks closes,” Miles jokes.

Brenda Balderas, a mom of two young boys in Aurora, said the school’s hours are one of the most attractive features for parents she has talked to about the school.

“That right there just opens a lot of doors for parents,” Balderas said. She helped gather parent feedback for the school and said she may send her own kids to the school when they are school-age.

The school will also offer free, full-day kindergarten and will follow a competency-based model that will move students through grade levels as they prove they’ve learned certain competencies, not based on time spent in class. The school will also use personalized learning, relying on technology, such as programs on computers or tablets, that move students through lessons at different paces based on each student’s needs.

By saving money on differentiating teacher pay, Miles said he will be able to hire more staff, like teacher’s assistants to get students more one-on-one help.

“That’s kind of what intrigued me the most,” Balderas said. “It’s a very good opportunity for parents, for their kids, that want a little bit more attention.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.