‘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.

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.