As Aurora district is crafting next year’s budget, coaches who turn new technology into engaging lessons are going away

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

In one Aurora school, a personalized learning coach helped teachers guide students in starting their own Google websites to use as digital binders — to save and display all of their projects.

In another school, a coach showed a teacher how to use Spotify, and helped him create an assignment in which students wrote and recorded songs about the Bill of Rights.

“That was a really cool experience, not only for me, but for my kids,” said Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher, now a dean at a different Aurora school. “That type of activity, if I wasn’t being coached, wouldn’t have happened.”

Personalized learning partners, also known to teachers as EdTech coaches, help teachers in Aurora schools learn to use new technology, and more importantly they say, come up with new ways to use it in class. But the same district-level help may not be around come fall.

Aurora Public Schools officials told the team of six coaches that their department was being cut as the district creates next year’s budget.

The district, like many across the state, may see an increase in funding per student next year, but with enrollment in Aurora continuing to drop, and with a new board and new priorities to pay for, the district is still looking at cuts to some programs.

District officials say teachers will still get help, just in a different form. But the decision is causing an uproar among teachers, who have posted on social media, called and emailed board members, and spoken to the board during public comment. Some called the cuts a social injustice, one they say might create new inequities in the district.

The issue seems particularly relevant for some staff this year as the district has been rolling out new technology as part of a $20 million investment approved by taxpayers in the 2016 bond package. At the same time that most schools are moving toward a one-to-one technology model where each student has one device, this year the district is switching from Outlook to Google email systems. The EdTech department helped teachers with both transitions this year.

“The assumption is that when teachers are hired, they’re already familiar with how they use technology,” said Gwynn Moore, a teacher speaking at a school board meeting last week. “When you utilize technology in a classroom, it is a whole different ball game. You need training. You need to have guidance and modeling.”

At that meeting, the school board also scolded Superintendent Rico Munn for making the decision without letting them know about it first — one of their policies requires a six-month notification before cutting a program — but Munn told the board the district is just shifting how it helps teachers, not eliminating any programs.

Board members also raised concerns in the same discussion about cuts they heard were happening to another centralized team that provides professionals to help teachers try interventions on students that need extra attention. That help will still be there, Munn said, but within schools, not centralized the same way it is now.

“This is still a significant decision being made without any notification to us,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “As long as I’ve been on the board, I’ve never seen anything like that where a whole group like that just disappeared and then I find out through a bunch of emails.”

Jorgensen said the lack of information meant the district used a poor process.

District officials declined an interview request to elaborate on the changes, saying that the district is “still in the preliminary stage of the budgeting process.”

The district also declined to provide a dollar amount for the estimated savings that cutting the department would produce. The elimination of the team, as the department described it on its Facebook page, means the six members will be out of a job this fall.

One reason for the lack of clarity is that some of the help the personalized learning coaches are now giving to schools and teachers may be incorporated in new ways next year. Right now, one personalized learning coach is assigned to each learning community — a group of up to 12 schools — and operated centrally.

“Personalized learning will be embedded in the professional development for teachers and leaders,” district officials said in a prepared statement. “Personalized learning will be embedded in our instructional coaching roles and professional learning. Previously, it only lived in personalized learning. Our shift is meant to strengthen supports for all schools district wide in a more equitable manner.”

Board members requested that the changes be a topic of discussion at another meeting soon. More details about how that would work may surface then.

Board president Marques Ivey said the concerns come down to whether more work will “fall on the teachers.”

Teachers, like Hogarty, also have that concern. But if the help is still there, and more site-based within schools, teachers said that could potentially be an improvement.

“Teachers are overwhelmed and underpaid,” Hogarty said. “At the end of the day all teachers want is help.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

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

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.