Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

List of schools impacted

  • Fulton Academy of Excellence
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary
  • William Smith High School
  • Tollgate Elementary
  • Vista Peak Exploratory
  • Vista Peak Preparatory

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”