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.

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.