Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

trading for tuition

New deal gives Aurora staff and graduates discounted college tuition at one online school

Aurora graduates and staff will now get a discount on college tuition at an online school as part of a deal in which the college will get a building in exchange for the discounted rates, district officials announced Monday.

The district had been working on the unique deal for more than a year. Initially, it raised several questions among school board members who wondered if there was a conflict of interest in selecting the CSU-Global Campus as the higher education partner for the district. They also wondered if that would be the best place for students of Aurora’s demographics, including students of color and students from low-income families since online schools often don’t show success serving at-risk students.

Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn, who came up with the idea for the plan, is chair of the governing board for the Colorado State University system, but has said he was not negotiating the deal. CSU-Global is an online four-year university under the CSU system. It was set up to serve non-traditional students, and officials believe it may help address some of the reasons Aurora students cite in not going to college, such as not being able to leave Aurora, or needing to work while going to school.

According to the latest numbers from a Colorado Department of Higher Education report, about 42 percent of Aurora students from the class of 2016 enrolled in higher education. A different state report evaluating the district puts that figure closer to 38 percent. The rate is significantly lower than the college-going rate for the state of about 56 percent.

CSU-Global just recently began accepting first-year college students — addressing another concern of previous school board members that students would have to go elsewhere on their own first.

Monday’s announcement states that Aurora graduates, going back to those from 2012, can enroll this year at a tuition rate of $250 per credit hour to earn their bachelor’s degree online. The statement estimates students would save approximately $2,400 per year on tuition based on a typical course load.

District staff pursuing an undergraduate degree will also receive the rate of $250 per credit hour, while staff members pursuing graduate degrees will receive a discounted rate of $335 per credit hour. A website lists full tuition rates at $350 per credit hour for undergraduate, and $500 per credit hour for graduate courses.

Other questions centered around whether the deal made financial sense for the district, but some of those questions haven’t been answered.

According to Monday’s news release, the discount rates “are available as APS and CSU-Global continue to work toward a long-term partnership.”

The money to pay for the higher-ed building will come from the $300 million bond package that Aurora voters approved in 2016.

Current board president Marques Ivey said in a released statement that he was “thrilled” the district could offer the discounts.

“While we recognize that an online experience may not be right for every student, we want to continue to pursue partnerships that expand offerings and reduce barriers to earning post-secondary certificates and degrees,” Ivey said in the statement. “This partnership is another significant effort toward achieving our vision that every APS student shapes a successful future.”