On the trail

Aurora school board candidates, at forum, pitch few new ideas to improve schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

AURORA — All seven of the candidates vying for three seats on this close-in suburb’s school board told a crowd of immigrant and refugee parents at a forum on Thursday that the struggling school district needs to do more to prepare students for life after high school.

But not every candidate agreed on how or what role parents should play in that effort.

The top three vote-getters in this election will join four others on the governing board of 42,000- student Aurora Public Schools.

Once sworn in, the new members will need to tackle the district’s grim reality: only one in 10 students is college ready, students and teachers don’t feel safe in their schools and parents lack information necessary to make good choices about their students.

Those were the findings of a blistering report, released earlier this month, produced by several Denver-based education reform advocacy groups and Aurora-based nonprofits, including RISE Colorado.

RISE, a parent advocacy group working in the Original Aurora neighborhood, was the sponsor of Thursday’s forum.

Meet the candidates | Learn where the seven Aurora school board candidates stand on the issues that matter to you here.

Few candidates were able to articulate any specific policy shift they would champion to reverse Aurora’s poor academic performance.

Linda Cerva, a community activist, said she would want the district to invest in more personalized-learning software for students.

Michael Donald, a small business owner, said he wants more teachers to look like Aurora’s mostly Latino and black students.

But as incumbent Dan Jorgensen pointed out, APS officials are already at work on a number of initiatives to boost student learning including those mentioned at the forum. He suggested some patience was needed to see if the district’s current reforms would work.

“We need stability in the district,” Jorgensen said.

All candidates said they supported the district’s new strategic plan, albeit a starting point.

And while most candidates put the onus of driving the district’s improvement on the school board and administration to boost student achievement, incumbent Cathy Wildman told parents in the audience, specifically, needed to step up to help the district.

“Many kids are not in the classroom because parents aren’t supporting them to be there,” she said.

School board candidates Grant Barrett, a small business owner, and Monica Colbert, who works for a foundation, said they believe parents and students need more school choice.

“We need to attract and bring in good high quality charter schools while focusing on student achievement,” Barrett said.

APS has historically been seen as unfriendly to charter schools. However, in the last year, APS has updated a number of policies to make it easier to open up a charter school in the district. But for the time being, APS has no space to offer a charter school, which is unappealing to well-established charter operators that otherwise would need to find their own space.

That could change after the 2016 election. The district is flirting with the idea of asking voters to increase taxes to fund new building needs. All seven school board candidates said they’d favor asking voters for more money.

One parent wondered why APS doesn’t try to replicate the teaching strategies of countries where most of its new refugee and immigrant students come from?

“That sounds like a great idea,” said candidate Billie Day, a retired teacher.

Day went on to say a first step in that direction would be recruiting more parent aids from a variety of international backgrounds.

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.