Stepping Back

Proposed Aurora budget cuts not as drastic as originally thought

Aurora Public Schools’ budget situation is not as precarious as previously thought, causing the district to step back from more drastic scenarios such as eliminating full-day kindergarten, cutting sports and clubs, and increasing staff-to-student ratios.

Instead, the district is proposing eliminating late-start Wednesdays to save on transportation, changing the way it gives money to certain schools and reducing health care options for teachers and other employees.

School board members got a preview of the budget package Tuesday night.

One reason for the shift is that Aurora’s budget decline would not be as drastic as initially feared under the most recent school funding proposal at the state legislature.

Superintendent Rico Munn said that the budget decrease will be less than the $31 million previously thought.

Although the legislative budget is looking better for Colorado school districts than it did a few months ago, Aurora is still working to shrink its budget because enrollment projections continue to show a downward trend. In the current school year, the district recorded the largest enrollment decline in decades. Demographic changes in the city mean the decline will continue.

“This wasn’t about budget cutting,” Munn said. “It really had to be about redesigning the budget. It wasn’t going to be good enough to cut here and cut there.”

The transportation department will save more than $1 million from not having to use contractors to help shuttle students on late-start Wednesdays. Having one health care provider for employees instead of two will save the district about $2.3 million.

It appears that one possible move — furlough days — will no longer be necessary.

The district will present a draft of the full budget to the board next month and the board is expected to approve it in June. Tuesday’s presentation highlighted the broader work and did not go into all the details.

Under the proposal, the district’s division of Equity in Learning would shrink its budget by changing what the division gives to schools. The division, created as one of the reforms Munn brought to the district, was due for a review to evaluate if it was working as intended.

The evaluation results were used to guide how cuts were proposed for the division. Instead of providing an array of district-level help for improving schools, the division will narrow the help it offers. Instead of offering district-level teacher training, the division will focus on school-level opportunities.

The district also will keep the college preparation International Baccalaureate program that was considered at one point for cuts. Instead, the district is changing how schools get money to offer the program.

In another example, Munn, who previously worked as an attorney, told the board that after reviewing the school board’s contracts with three schools, he determined the schools had been getting too much money for several years. The schools, called pilot schools, were created with the teacher’s union in 2007 to test reforms and school-level autonomy.

This fall, the schools — William Smith High School, Fulton Academy of Excellence and Lyn Knoll Elementary — will start receiving less money. For future years, the district is creating a task force that will recommend a better way to fund those schools.

“We kind of have to almost have a blank slate and have a conversation around what we need in order to either maintain these programs or have a transparent way of allocating to these programs,” Munn said. “Ultimately the board will have to make a decision whether different program types should be funded with a certain model based upon either performance expectations or program design. What we can’t really have happen is we can’t have it be an unpredictable amount.”

The district also highlighted two new contracts that will help for future changes to the budget. Massachusetts-based School by Design will work with three middle schools to find new ways for the schools to use their existing budgets to make changes that could improve student performance. The three middle schools were part of another pilot that was meant to change middle schools in Aurora.

The group has worked with several school districts across the country and has highlighted its efforts in the Thompson School District in Colorado.

Jeri Crispe, director of secondary education in Thompson, said the group helped schools rearrange schedules to find more joint planning time for teachers as the district prepares to transition to a competency-based learning model, which in some districts allows students to move through through classes and grade levels when they prove they’ve learned what they need to learn, instead of after a specific amount of time.

Crispe said teachers and school leaders were involved in the work with School by Design, and said the district still has a good relationship with the company.

Another consultant, Communities in Schools, will work with the district to find community groups that can provide more resources to Aurora schools to alleviate some need for district resources.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.