‘Clear Expectations’

Aurora district considering consequences for low-performing charter schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

In Aurora Public Schools, district-run schools must perform well enough academically or face repercussions, including possible closure, if they don’t shape up fast enough.

The same cannot be said for the district’s charter schools. Charter school contracts don’t have standard language spelling out performance standards, and the school district doesn’t have a policy for dealing with academically struggling charter schools.

All that could change soon. District officials are in the early stages of drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations and consequences for its charter schools.

The district is acting now because one Aurora charter, AXL Academy, earned a priority improvement rating from the state this year, the second lowest rating on the state’s system.

District officials are calling for a thorough review of AXL Academy and will be asking school leaders to create an improvement plan within 30 days. Having a new policy applying to all charter schools could set clear expectations and outline a process to close charters that fail to meet those expectations.

“The purpose is so we have a consistent way of holding schools accountable — a consistent and transparent process,” said Lamont Browne, the district’s executive director of autonomous schools.

Under what the district calls the CORE Framework, officials identify struggling schools using the state’s quality ratings. Schools earning the lowest two ratings get on the district’s radar. The framework outlines a timeline that requires an improvement plan and directs additional help for the school the first time it earns a low rating.

By the third year that a school is still earning low ratings, the district must recommend turnaround or a school improvement strategy.

The school then has one to two years to show improvement. The district used this framework to recommend a charter school take-over for one school last year.

So far, only district-run schools have faced consequences under the framework because a charter school hasn’t fit the definition for low-performing. Now that it’s happened, the district is trying to figure out what pieces can apply to charter schools, or whether other steps might be needed.

For charter schools, Browne says it’s too early to know exactly what a new policy might say. Officials are starting by researching best practices across the country, he said.

For now, the more thorough review that will be required for AXL Academy won’t necessarily lead to any consequences.

Browne told the school board in an update Tuesday night that in the future, if reviews show a concerning trend, officials could make a case for a charter school revocation or nonrenewal.

With AXL Academy, the Aurora district already has some flexibility to connect school performance to consequences. Because the school experienced financial problems in 2014, and the district gave the charter school a loan, language was added to that charter contract stating the school has to “maintain a school performance rating of ‘Performance’ as measured by state and school assessments,” and that failure to do so could be considered a breach of contract.

If the school board found a breach of contract, the district could shut down the school.

Similar contract language could be required in all future charter school contracts.

Dan Cohen, executive director for AXL Academy, said that he is confident the charter school will show improvement soon, but that he is worried the district is mounting evidence to recommend closure.

“I have no qualms that we will pull out of priority improvement,” Cohen said “We feel quite good about what we’ve been doing, but I don’t know what that will mean to the district.”

Cohen said that he is unsure why the district needs a separate assessment and timeline process for charter schools, and that it might make sense for the timeline and process to be similar to traditional district-run schools.

As far as the improvement process that Browne told the board Tuesday that AXL Academy will be required to submit, Cohen said it’s news to him. He said school leaders are already scrambling with a 10-day deadline to edit the school’s state improvement plan.

“Their behavior right now looks aggressive,” Cohen said of the school district.

District leaders expect to present a proposed policy to the board by June.

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.