Aurora school board says state ed officials had ‘inappropriate’ contact with HOPE Online

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AURORA | The constellation of charter schools in Aurora Public Schools wobbled last week after the APS Board of Education agreed to halt a new charter from opening in the district and retain the board’s right to fight a recent decision rendered by the state board of education.

At an Aug. 2 meeting, the APS school board heeded a recommendation from APS Superintendent Rico Munn to sever a previously negotiated contract with Aman STEAM Academy, a charter school approved by the APS board two years ago that was slated to begin holding classes this month.

Munn’s recommendation came after the district learned that Aman failed to enroll a sufficient number of students before the start of the school year.

“It was my conclusion that Aman did not, at present, have the capacity to get to a successful opening,” Munn said.

Aman was expected to enroll 180 students upon opening its doors Aug. 15, according to district documents. Farrah Martin, founder and executive director of Aman, said that the school had about 100 students enrolled on July 1, about 60 more students one week later, and currently has about 227 students ready to start school. However, the school failed to hit the necessary threshold before a deadline imposed by APS.

Martin said that the school long-expected enrollment numbers to be low leading up to the start of the school year due to the habits of the population Aman was aiming to serve.

“When we look at families that live in poverty … enrolling their child in February and March isn’t a priority,” she said. “But when you get to May, June, July … any school leader will tell you as you get closer to the start of school, you start to see those families coming. And it just, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”

Last month, Munn agreed to consider delaying Aman’s start date for one year while the school enrolled more students. However, that offer was contingent on the Aman board agreeing to add more professional experts in the fields of finance, capital/facilities, academics and human resources, as well as add a full-time project manager, according to a July 26 letter penned by Munn. The superintendent made his recommendation to deny the Aman charter application after Jim Haessler, president of the Aman school board, said that the school did not have the means to heed Munn’s requests.

Martin said that Aman plans to appeal the APS board’s decision to the state board of education, mirroring a move made earlier this spring by an existing charter in APS, HOPE Online Learning Academy. A Douglas County-based charter school network that currently operates five online learning centers in the district, HOPE Online successfully appealed to the state board earlier this summer after the APS board voted to discontinue the district’s relationship with the schools. APS administrators cited a lack of accountability, poor marks granted by the State Review Panel, subpar test scores and lingering turnaround status at the school as reasons for the proposal.

However, at the same Aug. 2 board meeting, Munn questioned the legitimacy of HOPE’s appeal to the state board. Munn said that “through a variety of mechanisms” APS learned that four members of the state board of education had “inappropriate contacts” with HOPE administrators during the appeal process.

State board members Joyce Rankin (R-Carbondale), Val Flores (D-Denver) and Debora Scheffel (R-Parker) received personal tours of HOPE centers in Aurora, according to a July 27 memo written by Munn to the APS board. An attorney for the state board confirmed those meetings, according to the memo.

“We would categorize (the tours) as well past the line of appropriate,” Munn said at the recent meeting.

State Board Chair Steve Durham (R-Colorado Springs) also had a phone conversation with a representative from HOPE prior to the appeal being filed, according to Munn’s memo. The call was deemed to be “procedural in nature,” according to the memo.

And while Munn said that he does not believe any members of the state board were intentionally deceitful, they should have recused themselves from the vote concerning HOPE’s appeal.

“I think people did not know better,” Munn said. “However, the state board of education is supposed to know better.”

Munn sent a letter to the office of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to clarify the process going forward, according to the memo.

The APS board agreed at last week’s meeting to retain its right to appeal the state board’s appeal decision, with several board members citing a need to bolster control at the local level.

“My personal belief is that the state board violated local control,” said APS Board President Amber Drevon. “We stood up and made a strong statement against a failing school in our struggling district, and I’m glad that that was heard and that that was recognized … my fear is that position could take a hit if we just waive our right (to appeal).”

The local school board is not planning to file a formal appeal, according to APS spokeswoman Patti Moon.

UPDATE: Aman STEAM no longer plans to appeal to the state board of education, Martin wrote in an email Thursday, Aug. 11.