Remaking Aurora

John Barry flunks retirement

John Barry can’t just quit.

Barry, now in his final week as superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, recently told EdNews Colorado about the July 1 launch of his new consulting firm, VISTA Quest (if that reminds you of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus that Barry likes to talk about, or Aurora’s strategic plan, VISTA 2015 — it’s not a coincidence).

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August. EdNews file photo.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August 2012. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

His next plan? To tap the nation’s best former and current superintendents, hire them on contract and pair them with new district leaders — especially those coming from outside the word of public education — who need help and support as they get their legs under them. The firm will specifically focus on leadership training, mentoring and crisis management.

It’s no secret that Barry, 61, a retired Air Force general, fits in that category of non-traditional superintendent,  and he is certainly no stranger to crisis.

Barry came to public education after a lengthy and storied military career that included being in the Pentagon on 9/11, working for NASA during the Challenger explosion, investigating the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003, and doing a stint in private industry. He earned kudos from Arne Duncan, the nation’s top education chief, for his deft handling the aftermath of the Aurora movie theater massacre last summer. By the district’s estimate, 150 former and current Aurora students, parents and staff were in the Century Aurora 16 theater when a heavily-armed lone gunman opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.

With retirement looming, he decided he wanted to remain in education and not move — ever. In his military career he said he moved 26 times in 30 years.

“I am not going to pack another bag,” he said, during a recent interview in an increasingly tidy office that doubles as an incident command meeting room.

In addition to launching his new enterprise, the former fighter pilot will continue flying for his own entertainment and teaching Aurora kids to fly through ground school. He also may be spotted with fishing rod wading into Colorado’s abundant rivers and streams.

While his mind is on future ventures and erasing any lingering reference to him on files or name plates at APS headquarters so his successor D. Rico Munn can start July 1 with a clean slate, Barry took a little time last week to reflect on his experiences over the past seven years as he ran the 38,000-student Aurora Public Schools.

Barry said when he arrived in Aurora, he found a diverse district with a budget in good shape, well-maintained facilities and staff who “still had fires in their eyes.” But the elephant in the room was student achievement. It was going down.

The origins of VISTA 2010, and VISTA 2015

Barry committed his energy to tackling that issue with military-style precision. He began with an intensive internal process that culminated with his now well-known 90-day listening tour as he laid the groundwork for a strategic plan, known as VISTA 2010, which was condensed into an image-rich 12-page document that was shared with the public.  The goal was to connect the end (vision) with the means (goals and objectives).  One catch phrase, or rather, acronym bandied about in Aurora schools is PACE. That stands for people, achievement, community and environment.

Barry said he prides himself in clarifying the primary district goal of making sure that every APS student graduates with the skills they need to attend college without remediation, and working to achieve that.

“We argue that we had a transformation on the order of magnitude to anything going on in the country,” he said.

While Barry acknowledges that that is a “pretty broad claim,” he cites work over the past seven years to improve and unify the literacy program in APS, revamp and upgrade quarterly assessments to give teachers more real-time data on their students, give teachers more time to meet and strategize on key items, such as the Common Core State Standards, and emphasize student data at regular meetings.

Some 23 more instructional days were added per year, and APS cut its truancy rate by one third by changing some practices and policies. The district cut dropout rates in half, beefed up the five-year graduation rate by 20 percent, rolled out strategic professional development for principals and implemented equity training in a district that boasts 120 languages representing 130 countries and 70 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Barry gets very excited when talking about the crisis management system the district embraced since he’s been at the helm, and which was put to good use on a day no one in Aurora will ever forget — July 20.

Alton Scales

Alton Scales, who began his post as president of the Community College of Aurora one year ago, said it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to watch Barry carry out a plan under intense deadlines.

“He is a master when it comes to logistics, and being able to stay on point when it comes to messaging,” Scales said.

He said CCA and APS have done a great service to the students of Aurora by working so  hard to create the number one concurrent enrollment system in the state. He described Barry as someone who was engaged and available.

“I have found him to be always accessible,” Scales said. “During our second meeting he gave me his cell phone number. He’s going to missed in that role.”

Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora Education Association, gave Barry high marks for his ability to forge key strategic partnerships that not only enhanced the quality of real-word educational opportunities in the district but netted support for bond and property tax measures in 2008 and 2012. She also gave him big props for his work to get the cutting edge Vista PEAK P-20 campus off the ground.

“One of his greatest accomplishments was his ability to create an external network that really supported Aurora Public Schools,” Nichols said. “Nobody’s perfect, but I give him 100 percent high marks in that regard.”

However, Nichols said the same personality traits that made him a topnotch tw0-star general were the same things that could make collaboration difficult.

“Teachers are taught to question: why, how come…?” Nichols said. “There were times he felt we were questioning him personally.”

Disappointment over TCAP scores

Looking back, a disappointment for Barry was not being able to move the needle more quickly and decisively on student achievement.

Under his tenure, the district failed to reach its goal of a 10 percent increase in TCAP proficiency for all grade levels and all content areas, but the district did report a 3 percentile or greater gain on the 2012 TCAP.  And the number of schools meeting state proficiency averages increased by 2 percent. Since 2006, Aurora schools surpassed the state CSAP/TCAP achievement rates for reading, writing, math and science every year.

“I think I was a little bit more naïve on how fast I could move that needle,” Barry said. “I wanted the hockey stick. I didn’t want the incremental growth.”

Still, he says the financial crisis didn’t help. Seventy million dollars were cut from the district budget over three years. He wonders what he could have done to boost student performance if the budget had remained intact.

He started the second phase of the strategic plan, VISTA 2015, four years into the first since 93 percent of the original goals had been reached. The second phase focused on external vs. internal transformations. He and staff reached out to forge partnerships with government and business entities and create ways for students to get real-world experiences and mentoring in the subjects they care about.

This emphasis on tapping into student interests is also at the core of the district’s Academic and Career Pathways program, which allows students to pursue a track focusing on health sciences, business, arts and communications or STEM all the way through school. Barry said he also feels good about the number of Aurora students earning college credits while still in high school. In fact, one district program allows students to stay in high school for a fifth year in order to earn college credits – if not an associate’s degree.  This past school year, Aurora high school students earned 10,000 college credits.

A key goal for Barry is to align academic development to economic development. One day, he would like to see Colorado have great talent right here so employers no longer have to import workers.

“What our team has done is put the mosaic of institutions together…to do two things –  accelerate student achievement and close the achievement gap,” Barry said. “You can’t do one without the other.”

In March 2010, Barry gave the district a grade of B+ based on the strategic plan in an interview with EdNews Colorado. This time, he gives it an A-.

“My basic mantra is you have to leave it better than you found it. Hopefully I’ve done that with my part.”

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.