Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.
Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.
The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.
Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.
“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.
Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.
“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”
Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.
Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.
“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”
Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.
“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”
He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”
When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.
“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”
November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.
“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.
Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.
The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.
The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.
Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.
During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.
“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.
Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.
Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.