Green Light

DSST charter network would open four new schools in Aurora under staff recommendation

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

High-achieving Denver-based charter school network DSST is one step closer to expanding into Aurora after school district staff recommended school board approval of four new schools.

School board members asked few questions at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Although some had previously raised questions about the way Superintendent Rico Munn had singled out DSST as a potential partner and offered it a building, most applauded the charter approval process.

“I appreciate the whole process from the get-go, from being a focused effort on Superintendent Munn’s part to seek out a partnership that is part of our transformation in the district to the new process,” said Amber Drevon, the school board president. “I just think we have a huge opportunity here. I see this whole thing changing the relationship that we have with charter schools and how we deal with them and how we best work together to support students.”

The school board will vote on the charter application at its June 20 meeting.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first outside of Denver.

Aurora’s school district has not traditionally been known as friendly to charter schools, adding to the significance of the planned expansion there.

Aurora officials made some changes this year to the way the district reviews charter school applications having each go through a new Charter School Advisory Committee as well as the usual District Accountability Committee. There is now a minimum of three internal and external reviewers per subject.

The evaluations found DSST’s application met the bar in every one of its 20 sections including on budget, transportation, waivers and engagement. The application scored the highest in sections related to parent and community involvement. It was partially proficient in three of 20 sections, but Aurora officials explained to the board that there were valid explanations for those lower scores.

In one section, for instance, on budget, DSST received a lower score because its budget included a large amount of money coming from grants and fundraising. Districts often want charters to have conservative budgets with money that is guaranteed. But DSST officials were able to point to a track record of fundaising support for its programs.

Another section on facilities was scored low because DSST didn’t yet have many details about where it would locate. But district officials explained they wouldn’t expect DSST to go look for a building, given the offer that the district extended to the charter operator to construct a new building.

Board members on Tuesday asked questions about the school’s philosophy and about whether the charter network might be willing to waive appeal rights in case the district ever closed the charter schools for performance reasons or for losing state accreditation.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said that was a legal question he wouldn’t respond to, but said he would hope the situation never came up.

Under the DSST charter application, the network would start by opening a middle school in the fall of 2019, starting with 150 sixth graders. The school would add a grade level each year until having a middle school serving sixth through eighth grades and a high school serving ninth through 12th graders. A second campus would start the same way opening in the fall of 2021, starting with a middle school and building up to the addition of a high school.

The network’s new schools in Aurora would likely have a different name; DSST stands for the Denver School of Science and Technology.

Under Munn’s original proposal inviting the charter network into Aurora, the school district would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money.

DSST officials responded that they would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that they believe the school district should take the lead.

The recommendation presented Tuesday for approval of the charter schools does not detail any amounts the district and the charter network would each be responsible for raising but sets a deadline of March 30 for raising all the money needed. A total cost has not been updated, but at the time of the proposal the district estimated their cost between $15 million and $23 million.

“In conjunction with APS, fundraising dollars will be secured to construct an APS facility adequate to house the middle and high schools envisioned in the first campus,” the proposed resolution states. “In the event necessary fundraising dollars are not obtained, applicant will be given the opportunity to seek other options to secure a facility.”

The district’s portion of the funding for a DSST building will come from bond money approved by voters in November. At an update on bond projects earlier this spring, district officials told the board early work was underway for designs of the building in consultation with DSST.

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.