meeting of the minds

Aurora school board met illegally with Gates Foundation, charters

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.

A majority of the Aurora Public Schools’ Board of Education met illegally April 29 with representatives from several national charter school networks and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a spokeswoman for the district confirmed Wednesday.

And now the suburban Denver school district is reviewing how it coordinates nontraditional board meetings.

“After reviewing our policies, we recognized there was an oversight and we should have posted a notice about the meeting,” said APS spokeswoman Georgia Duran. “I want to emphasize that we do take our responsibility to be open and transparent seriously.”

The Wednesday evening meeting was originally planned as a social event for APS staff and leaders from the charter networks. The representatives from the networks and the Gates Foundation were in town to discuss how charter schools could be used to improve academic performance in the academically struggling school district.

Superintendent Rico Munn later decided to invite the board to the social event “as a courtesy,” Duran said. The district did not track which board members agreed to participate in the dinner.

At the dinner, board members mingled with leaders from Green Dot Public Schools, New Visions Schools, Mastery Public Schools, and the school management organization AUSL.

But later in the evening, the conversation became more formal and focused on Aurora Central High School, where the district is trying to improve student outcomes on standardized tests and graduation rates before the state steps in.

“They asked us, as board members, to share some of the context at Central, in terms of what does the community look like, what are some of the questions we’re wrestling with that would be helpful to answer, what prompted us to seek them out,” JulieMarie Shepherd, the school board president, said said.

Shepherd said she believed the meeting was within the limits of the law because neither an official course of action was discussed nor a vote was taken. It was a social event, an exception to the open records law, Shepherd said.

While the open meetings law does allow some flexibility around social events — like a chance meeting at a school fundraiser — that clearly isn’t the case here, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

“The large group discussion at which board members were asked to discuss Aurora Central should have been posted somehow,” Roberts said. “That was a meeting, involving more than two members of the board, at which public business was discussed. The public should have known about that meeting and should have been given an opportunity to hear the discussion.”

Board member Cathy Wildman said she didn’t know the meeting hadn’t been posted.

“I made the assumption that it had been taken care of through [district lawyers],” Wildman said. “That’s the minutiae I don’t have to deal with. It should be dealt with by administration. Nine times out of 10 we are very careful.”

The district’s admission about the illegal meeting comes less than 24 hours after some board members raised concern at their May 5 meeting about a lack of community input on a broad strategy to improve student learning at a cluster of schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood, near Aurora Central High.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.