Seven months after voters backed the project as part of a $300 million bond package, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State University are negotiating terms of an unusual partnership that involves swapping building space for scholarships and other services.
Under the proposed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 million to construct a new building to house CSU’s Global Campus, an online degree program under the Colorado State University system. If board members approve the final deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through conventional lease payments, but in some combination of full-ride scholarships, discounted tuition for district graduates or teachers, and staff training.
Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open another door to college for Aurora students, many of whom come from low-income families.
But some school board members have expressed skepticism about how many Aurora students will benefit, and one has raised questions about Munn’s position as CSU board member.
For the project to even be included on last fall’s bond question, state law had to change. After lobbying from APS officials, lawmakers did just that, allowing for bond-financed projects to build not just school district buildings but also buildings to lease to higher education institutions.
Aurora Public Schools then included the project in its bond package, which is also paying for two new school buildings, fixes to existing buildings and technology upgrades.
CSU-Global currently pays $500,000 per year to lease office space near the Denver Tech center, in the south suburbs.
“What we are doing right now is paying a landlord,” said CSU-Global president Becky Takeda-Tinker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and inside the public sector, it makes a lot of sense.”
Plenty of uncertainties remain. While the district has hired an architect, a site has not yet been determined. The initial proposed site, on vacant land the district owns near William Smith High School on Airport Boulevard, may not be available because of federal easements on the property. Munn said officials are considering about five additional sites.
As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on market rates and the services the district receives must be worth that amount. But since a location hasn’t been set, officials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms continue to change, Munn said, in part, because a location for the new building hasn’t been finalized.
Questions and concerns about the partnership came up at an Aurora school board meeting in December, when some board members said they were learning for the first time that students would not be able to enroll at CSU-Global directly after high school.
Because CSU-Global is set up to serve non-traditional students, and because state officials didn’t want the school to compete with existing schools and community colleges, the school only takes transfer students who already have more than 12 credits, unless they’re from outside Colorado.
At the meeting, board president Amber Drevon questioned Munn about how many students might benefit from such a scholarship if they have to go out on their own first.
“I thought we were trying to reach the students that wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise,” Drevon said. “But they are going to have to go spend that money or get scholarships first before they even have the opportunity to enroll in CSU-Global. That probably will not help a lot of kids we were trying to reach in the first place.”
Munn responded that even so, the thought of a portion of a four-year degree at an affordable price would be used as motivation for students.
“What concerns me is that you’ll lose them,” Drevon said.
“I appreciate that, but I think the challenge is we’re already losing them,” Munn responded.
Drevon did not return messages requesting comment for this story.
Early draft documents from July 2015 estimated that about 200 Aurora students per year could potentially benefit from scholarships or discounted tuition at CSU-Global. But Munn said the number of students who will benefit will depend on issues still to be resolved, including figuring out how many services the college will need to provide or whether the program prioritizes students who qualify for federal Pell grants or students studying a particular career program.
He said conversations are underway to see if money can be raised to help students pay for the credits they would need to earn at a community college or elsewhere before transferring to CSU-Global.
Board member Eric Nelson also raised alarm in December about Munn’s status as a governing board member for the CSU system. Munn became board chair just over a month ago.
“To me it seems the biggest beneficiary here is you, currying political favor with large CSU donors and other CSU board members at the expense of APS and our own district and student needs,” Nelson wrote to Munn in December.
Nelson said last week that his concerns haven’t changed.
Munn said he has disclosed both positions, has removed himself from all board votes or discussions at CSU about the proposed deal and is not at the negotiating table, though he will be making final recommendations on behalf of the Aurora school district.
Other board members are unconcerned about Munn’s two roles.
“I really don’t worry about it,” said board member Monica Colbert. “Because of the format CSU-Global offers, they’re the right ones to offer services to our students, regardless of Rico’s role.”
Munn says the clear goal of the partnership is to increase the district’s college going rate, and he said CSU-Global addresses some of the issues Aurora graduates cite in not going to college, such as not having the ability or desire to move away from their community, or the need to work while going to school.
According to a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, about 42 percent of the district’s graduates went on to college in 2015, which is lower than the state’s overall college-going rate of 56.5 percent.
If the same Aurora students are going to college, but just changing which school they go to, then the partnership will not have been a success, Munn said.
Michele Moses, professor of educational foundations and policies at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education, said that she believes the proposal could increase college access, but that the district should question what an online-only college could provide that other colleges can’t, given the overall bad track record of online schools, particularly with at-risk students.
“It seems the question really is, ‘Is the investment that this is going to take for them, is that going to be worth the benefit, given that we have all of these concerns right off the bat?’” Moses said. “If the partnership with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puzzle of college access, then maybe, why not?”
Munn said he expects to have the major pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a letter of intent this fall. And work on the building should be able to start this winter so the building could be ready next year.
“We know how it can benefit students and we know different ways it can benefit students,” Munn said. “Now it’s about using the resources that we have to structure it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”