More Time

Aurora school board rejects superintendent’s proposal in first big decision on school turnaround

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school board members voted against the superintendent’s plan to improve school performance at Lyn Knoll Elementary School after weighing competing recommendations Tuesday.

The vote — a split decision with two veteran members voting against the majority — was the first major decision for the new school board and could signal a new direction for how the district will handle low-performing schools. Four of the seven board members were elected in November as part of a union-backed slate.

Two weeks ago, Aurora Public Schools staff and Superintendent Rico Munn presented the board with a turnaround recommendation for Lyn Knoll, a school that enrolls fewer than 240 students and that earned, for the first time, the lowest quality rating from the state this year.

The district’s proposed plan was to contract with an external manager to help the school improve instruction, teacher training, and family engagement and to do marketing and recruitment to attract new students to the school.

“I believe that next year, if we leave the status quo, Lyn Knoll is likely to pop back up on the performance frameworks, but it’s about are the structures in place, as best we can tell, for a sustained improvement,” Munn said. “Those structures are not in place. This is not a recommendation to get rid of Lyn Knoll. This is not a recommendation to convert Lyn Knoll into a charter.”

Even so, board members questioned the need to hand over some management of the school to an outside company or consultant.

“I’m concerned the district would entrust our school to a partner who’s unfamiliar with our population,” said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the board member who made the motion to reject the superintendent’s recommendation.

The alternate plan that the board approved was presented by the district’s joint steering committee, a group that oversees the district’s three pilot status schools, including Lyn Knoll. That recommendation was for the school to keep its current pilot status for another year under a set of conditions. The committee offered to watch over the school as they make changes, including some that are already in the works, such as the roll out of a new curriculum and new data planning.

Union President Bruce Wilcox, who is also a member of the committee, presented the opposing recommendation for Lyn Knoll, and told the board Tuesday that the decision would send a larger message to the Aurora community.

“Will the board make a fully informed decision or will the decision be made to move forward with a plan where the details remain a mystery to parents, community members, and teachers?” Wilcox asked the board before the decision. “This is about more that one school and one decision.”

Based on the district’s own policies, when a school earns a turnaround rating, the district reviews the school’s needs and prepares a recommendation for improvement which could include a number of options such as turning the school into a charter or into an innovation school with increased autonomy.

The school’s existing pilot status, a model that was created by former district leadership working with the district’s teachers union, already gives it some autonomy.

As part of the creation of that school model, a joint steering committee was created to oversee the pilot status schools.

Speaking for the committee, Wilcox said the loss of 12 teachers due to budget cuts may have contributed to the drop in performance, along with other factors

“They had undergone such a significant change last year in staffing and programming that we wanted to give them an opportunity,” Wilcox said.

Munn argued that his recommendation was not based on just one year’s data.

The board will later have to clarify how the district or the committee will oversee changes at the school.

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.”