Looking ahead

Aurora school district looking at enrollment challenges, sees need for new plan

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools is seeing the largest decline of students in decades, and it is likely that the enrollment numbers will not improve for five more years, school officials said on Tuesday.

Even as the student population drops, the decline is not uniform across the city, and the recovery may not be either, officials said. The largest loss of students is in the northwest corner of the city, an area of high poverty, while most growth is likely to be in the eastern portion of the district, near Bennett, officials said.

Those trends, derived from the district’s daily tracking of enrollment and presented to the school board on Tuesday, will present a set of different challenges in each part of the district and the district’s long-term strategic plan for addressing them expired this year.

“A question the entire community is going to have to answer is how can we rest assured that we’re going to be able to provide educational opportunities to all kids, understanding that we have some pretty dramatic differences,” said Anthony Sturges, chief operating officer for the district.

Enrollment for the district, according to numbers from the end of September, is about 41,250. That is down from a peak of 42,569 in 2015.

Officials said they expect the decline to reverse in about five years, giving them time to think and plan for the kind of district they would like to see emerge out of the enrollment trends.

Superintendent Rico Munn said he will seek information and advice to develop a strategic plan to guide the district through the transition. He proposed a set of seven questions to put to the community, including how to plan for or fund new buildings or how to modify existing ones. With the projections, it is possible the district will have to find ways to pay for new school buildings while also finding ways to cut costs at underutilized ones elsewhere.

Board members agreed with the superintendent’s proposed questions and lauded his proposal as proactive.

Last year, the school board had to make budget cuts mid-year as enrollment numbers dropped beyond what was expected. The district then went through a community process to find ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by as much as $31 million. Ultimately because state funding was more generous than expected, not all of those budget cuts were made, but many schools still had to make staffing cuts for the current school year.

This year, because the enrollment drops were closer to what was predicted, no mid-year budget cuts are expected.

When the district first started seeing a significant drop in enrollment, officials were hopeful that the trend would only last a couple of years. Historically, an enrollment decline in Aurora schools has always reversed the next year. But that is not what officials are seeing this time.

Aurora Public Schools enrollment trends.

They attribute the decline this time to a variety of factors, including a lower birth rate, the increased cost of housing for families and an increase in the number of school options not managed by the district. But the geographical variation in the losses has much to do with development, which has varied throughout the city, and the trends are expected to continue.

In northwest Aurora, near the border with Denver, planned redevelopment will market to young professionals, not necessarily families. That, along with a continued increase in property values in that area, will likely keep pushing families out, especially many who live there and are of low-income status. Some schools in that area are still over 90 percent filled, but are not as overcrowded as other schools in the district.

Meanwhile near Aurora’s eastern boundary with Bennett, officials said there are two large housing developments being planned.

“We have not much out there and Bennet has nothing out there, and they’re talking about dropping 10,000 homes in the next 10 years,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “We need to be thoughtful and creative about how we respond to those kinds of challenges and plan ahead for it, so that we’re not putting kids on buses for two hours to get to a school.”

Between 2010 and 2016, the population within the Aurora Public School boundaries increased for all age groups, except for children 0 to 5 years old, which saw a 7 percent decrease in population. It was not just Aurora that saw this decline, officials said. A lower birth rate during the recession affected communities across the state and the country.

But increased housing costs — up almost 40 percent in Aurora in less than 10 years — have also driven people out of the district, as well as some neighboring communities.

Most troubling to officials: enrollment increases at the same time to Aurora schools not under the district’s control.

Charter schools operating within the district are enrolling more students every year and the district expects that to continue. In 2016, charter schools had 4,399 students. This school year, charters have an estimated 5,027 students. By 2021, charter schools are expected to be educating more than 6,000 Aurora students, officials said.

Some of those schools, like HOPE Online and Roca Fuerte Academy, are authorized by other school districts.

At the same time, technological advances in the next decade could make online options attractive for more families, officials said, meaning the district should also consider district-run alternative models.

“Choice is here and choice will continue to be here,” said Superintendent Munn. “The question for us in large part is how much of this does this board manage? How much of this does this board get to really own and decide how that will be able to partner with this district?”

The 7 proposed questions to consider:

  • 1. What does the system of schools that serves students in APS boundaries look like to ensure equitable opportunities for all our studnets?
  • 2. What does the system of traditional schools look like to ensure equity of educational opportunities across the entire district in service of APS 2020 goals and goals of future strategic plans?
  • 3. How should APS meet the demands of growing enrollment in some parts of the district, particularly in areas with new developments?
  • 4. How should APS respond to schools that are seeing declining enrollment as a result of a number of factors?
  • 5. What types of instructional opportunities should the district offer for students?
  • 6. How do we plan for and fund new facilities or modify existing facilities to support that system and in light of anticipated and unanticipated changes?
  • 7. What is the relationship between APS and charter schools?

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.