Human Resources

Struggling Aurora Central High will have new leader next fall

The high school at the heart of Aurora Public Schools’ most ambitious school improvement efforts will have a new interim principal this fall.

The suburban school district has released Mark Roberts from his principalship duties at Aurora Central High School and offered him a new position within the district, a spokeswoman confirmed.

Roberts’ exit comes as Aurora school officials have earned preliminary nods from their school board and the State Board of Education to begin creating a plan for a network of schools — including Aurora Central — that would work together outside of some state and district policies to improve learning for students

“In light of this desire for change, APS will be hiring an interim leader with unique experience to assist with this change,” spokeswoman Patti Moon said in a statement. “We can assure the Aurora Central community that the interim principal will actively engage students and families while focusing on improving student achievement.”

Moon declined further comment until Roberts accepted the job or not.

Roberts did not return an email request for an interview. He was principal at Aurora Central for two years. Under his leadership, the academically struggling school, which has run out of time on the state’s accountability timeline, made slight improvements on tests scores. But impressions of Roberts’ tenure have been mixed among community members, parents, students, and staff.

Robert’s replacement will be one of 11 new principals in APS this fall.

This year APS changed the way it screened for and hired principals. But given the proximity to the start of the school year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn will make the selection of who replaces Roberts.

The most substantial change to the process is what APS’s Chief Personnel Officer Damon Smith calls “performance-based activities.”

Principal candidates, very early in the application process, were asked to role play three or four different scenarios principals might encounter on a daily basis. Those situations included providing a teacher with feedback on a lesson, dissecting student data and creating a strategy to improve results, and working through a parent complaint.

One of the reasons why APS changed how it hired principals was because of student achievement, Smith said.

“In our district, we have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “We need to get a better understanding of a person’s ability.”

Between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school year, 16 APS schools will have new principals. Of those, nine are on the state’s accountability watch list for poor academic performance.

Hiring an effective principal is paramount to boosting student learning, said Kim Knous Dolan, associate director at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, who has lead research on Colorado school principals.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

“A principal is the person who is going to hire teachers, support teachers, hopefully keep teachers, who are the most important in student learning gains,” Knous Dolan said. “Principals are the glue that makes sure the entire school is achieving and growing.”

Knous Dolan and other education observers interviewed by Chalkbeat noted the growing pressures on and different responsibilities of principals makes it difficult to recruit and identify quality leaders. That challenge is even more difficult when hiring a principal to turn around an academically struggling campus.

“Turnaround leaders in particular need a relentless focus on achievement, need to be able influence others, and impact change,” Knous Dolan said.

Peter Sherman, the state’s school turnaround leader, added that school district officials hiring principals need to think carefully about the unique challenges each school has and what skills are need to address those challenges.

“I don’t think there is an ideal principal description,” Sherman said. “Schools need different people at different times.”

To help build those skills in new and veteran principals, the Colorado Department of Education has given $1.6 million to 13 school districts , including Aurora, to send 45 principals to specialized turnaround training.

That training might be useful for whoever goes on to lead Aurora Central, said Michelle Ancell, vice president of the Aurora Central High School alumni association.

“I think the issues facing Central are very complicated,” she said. “They go beyond the classroom and the school building. … I think the issues that have faced every principal at Central — including Dr. Roberts — are going to affect the new principal as well. Not only the academic issues but the societal issues as well.”

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.