Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would cover half the cost. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices involving science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November, as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST has said it would help with fundraising for the building, but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on funding for buildings, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities for the two new schools.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6-12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST officials noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also noted that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents drive her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials said in an update about work on bond projects that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open-enrollment schools, meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST officials also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee and District Accountability Committee before going to the school board for a final decision in June.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

trading for tuition

New deal gives Aurora staff and graduates discounted college tuition at one online school

Aurora graduates and staff will now get a discount on college tuition at an online school as part of a deal in which the college will get a building in exchange for the discounted rates, district officials announced Monday.

The district had been working on the unique deal for more than a year. Initially, it raised several questions among school board members who wondered if there was a conflict of interest in selecting the CSU-Global Campus as the higher education partner for the district. They also wondered if that would be the best place for students of Aurora’s demographics, including students of color and students from low-income families since online schools often don’t show success serving at-risk students.

Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn, who came up with the idea for the plan, is chair of the governing board for the Colorado State University system, but has said he was not negotiating the deal. CSU-Global is an online four-year university under the CSU system. It was set up to serve non-traditional students, and officials believe it may help address some of the reasons Aurora students cite in not going to college, such as not being able to leave Aurora, or needing to work while going to school.

According to the latest numbers from a Colorado Department of Higher Education report, about 42 percent of Aurora students from the class of 2016 enrolled in higher education. A different state report evaluating the district puts that figure closer to 38 percent. The rate is significantly lower than the college-going rate for the state of about 56 percent.

CSU-Global just recently began accepting first-year college students — addressing another concern of previous school board members that students would have to go elsewhere on their own first.

Monday’s announcement states that Aurora graduates, going back to those from 2012, can enroll this year at a tuition rate of $250 per credit hour to earn their bachelor’s degree online. The statement estimates students would save approximately $2,400 per year on tuition based on a typical course load.

District staff pursuing an undergraduate degree will also receive the rate of $250 per credit hour, while staff members pursuing graduate degrees will receive a discounted rate of $335 per credit hour. A website lists full tuition rates at $350 per credit hour for undergraduate, and $500 per credit hour for graduate courses.

Other questions centered around whether the deal made financial sense for the district, but some of those questions haven’t been answered.

According to Monday’s news release, the discount rates “are available as APS and CSU-Global continue to work toward a long-term partnership.”

The money to pay for the higher-ed building will come from the $300 million bond package that Aurora voters approved in 2016.

Current board president Marques Ivey said in a released statement that he was “thrilled” the district could offer the discounts.

“While we recognize that an online experience may not be right for every student, we want to continue to pursue partnerships that expand offerings and reduce barriers to earning post-secondary certificates and degrees,” Ivey said in the statement. “This partnership is another significant effort toward achieving our vision that every APS student shapes a successful future.”