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.”

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,500

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.