Kinda Sorta

Aurora board takes half-step to help cashless charter school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Members of AXL Academy charter school community, including Amber Malin, center, celebrated Tuesday night after the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education gave the financially struggling school a tentative lifeline.

AURORA — A charter school teetering on the edge of bankruptcy was given a tentative lifeline Tuesday night by the city’s school board. But the Aurora Public Schools board stopped short of approving a one-year charter extension for AXL Academy.

While several board members aired their skepticism about granting a one-year extension to the school – its charter contract expires June 30 – the board unanimously agreed to allow the district and AXL more time to develop a plan that would close a $632,000 shortfall and set the charter school on a path toward fiscal and academic stability.

The board, which has been considered chilly to charter schools in the past, will review the plan and vote on a one-year charter contract extension as early as its Jan. 6 meeting.

The vote can’t come soon enough for the AXL community. Thanks to some budget crunching, it has just enough cash now to get through March 2.

The extra time is also a welcomed symbolic gesture of Aurora’s warming to charter schools, said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“This board is interested in what’s in the best interest of children and their families,” Flood said after the meeting, pointing out that APS has also renewed two of its charters schools — Global Village and the Aurora Academy — this month. “They’re taking a broader view. They’re looking across their portfolio to make sure there are high quality options for their students.”

While AXL had originally asked for the district to establish a credit line for about $300,000, the school presented a new plan Tuesday asking the district to allow the school to run a deficit of about $175,000 this school year. That deficit would be wiped out by a projected surplus next year. The surplus would come from one-time funds promised by the legislature to all public schools, and an anticipated increase in per-pupil funding.

The new plan also relies on raising  $150,000 from philanthropic foundations. And in keeping with the original plan, AXL would like APS to defer about $300,000 in service fees this school year, allowing the school to pay those over three years.

“We strongly believe that this process will create an AXL Academy that is strong, more effective, and most importantly, more responsible than ever before,” said Brent Reckman, a co-principal at AXL.

Financial consultant Jason Gurrero from G and G Consulting, left, and AXL co-principal Brent Reckman answered questions from the APS Board of Education Tuesday night.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Financial consultant Jason Gurrero from G and G Consulting, left, and AXL co-principal Brent Reckman answered questions from the APS Board of Education Tuesday night.

More than 100 AXL supporters squeezed into the modest APS board chambers. Six individuals — two parents, two teachers, and two students — spoke in favor of providing a contract extension to AXL.

“It isn’t a perfect school, but it is our school,” said Amber Malin, an AXL teacher whose child also attend the school.

Parents and teachers who spoke at the board meeting shared their renewed faith in AXL, which has experienced financial hardship before and has seen a dip in academic performance, according to state test score data.

“I feel more secure in the planning of AXL’s future than ever before,” said Heather Rivers, an AXL teacher.

Student Vance Manzanares said his teachers have inspired him to go to college since he was young.

“They want us to be great people — not just now, but especially when we grow up,” he said. “They always tell me to go for my dreams. I want to be an inventor. Not one of my teachers has told me that’s a bad idea. That’s why you’ll all be able to fly in 2025 with awesome rocket-propelled shoes.”

Board members and Superintendent Rico Munn, weighing the financial ramifications of its options, fired a series of questions at AXL’s leadership, financial consultant, and Lisa Flores from the Gates Family Foundation.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Gates Family Foundation.)

One of the most intense exchanges was between Munn and Flores.

Munn attempted to gauge the foundation’s willingness to support AXL and what the district and school would need to do to ensure for the foundation’s contribution. Flores said her foundation is interested in continuing its support of AXL, which it has done for many years, but explained she didn’t have the authority to pledge any dollar amount without approval from the foundation’s board of directors.

“What we’re looking for is everyone making a good faith effort to long-term planning,” Flores said.

Flores said she was impressed by how the school’s new leadership team was grappling with a number of challenges including food service, renegotiating the school’s lease, and student recruitment, but that several details still needed to be finalized, including how much time AXL would have to repay the $300,000 in fees that would be deferred this year.

Munn and his board of education agreed.

“I have to be honest, this is making me a little nervous,” said APS board member Amber Drevon. “Are you looking for donations in other places?”

AXL’s leaders said they were.

Board member Dan Jorgensen appeared pleased with the path Aurora and AXL were on.

“There’s nothing I can see as another approach,” said board member Dan Jorgensen.

But board member Eric Nelson wasn’t so optimistic.

“I’m really praying that you have a contingency plan,” he said.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


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.