Fewer poor students in APS creates district funding conundrum

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AURORA | Aurora Public Schools students are becoming less impoverished, and that’s not all good news.

At face value, higher incomes in the district covering much of Aurora would be cause for celebration. But while residents with higher incomes move in to the district, impoverished families are leaving for somewhere cheaper, and many low-income APS students are becoming increasingly concentrated in some schools.

The lopsided economic growth in the district — which benefits the city’s booming eastern edge — and falling enrollment have presented a host of challenges for the district and its 37,000 district students. New to the list is a dilemma involving so-called Title I funds: money from the federal government specifically following low-income students.

Fewer entitled students means fewer federal dollars.

In APS, Title I funds pay for staff and items at schools that otherwise couldn’t meet  the price tags.

An overall “wealthier” district means less Title I funding for a growing number of schools filled with mostly poor students.

“It’s a lose-lose,” school board President Kyla Armstrong-Romero said of the predicament.

Because the district is serving more students from families with relatively higher incomes, APS took a 10 percent cut in Title I funding this year, from about $11.5 million last year to $10.4 million — and officials expect to lose 10 more percent of that funding next year.

Superintendent Rico Munn asked a newly seated school board for advice Dec.3.

On the table: proposals to spread the shrinking pot of federal funds across more schools as needed. Or, the school board may recommend raising the threshold for Title I funding, effectively funding only the most poor of Aurora’s schools while cutting off others that barely miss the cut.

“There’s not a lot of, necessarily, 100 percent better or right answers,” said  Brett Johnson, APS’ chief financial officer. He said losing Title I funds in a school could jeopardize as many as five staff positions.

Every year, the federal government gives APS, and other districts, millions of dollars in the Title I funds by way of the state education department.

Johnson told The Sentinel the funds are tailored specifically for schools with high numbers of impoverished students, usually to fund teachers, counselors, family liaisons and other positions that can make a positive difference in students’ lives and test scores. The motto of the Department of Education Title I program is to “supplement, not supplant” educational resources provided by a local district.

Title I funds go to the district, where officials decide where they would make the highest impact. Per the federal standard, a district has to use Title I funds if a school’s student body is considered more than 75 percent impoverished. To dole out the federal funds, the district looks at the percentage of students receiving free lunches, a measure of poverty.

For years, APS has also included schools with fewer impoverished students than outlined by the federal standard. The district threshold for a Title I school is those with more than 70 percent of students receiving free lunch.

Board member Debbie Gerkin said Dec. 3 she was proud that the district had funded schools that just fell short of the federal standard, but are still filled with mostly impoverished students.

But because of the two-fold problem — fewer free lunch students overall, but more in specific schools where the money is needed most — the district may have to cut off Title I funding to schools that just miss the 70 percent bar and focus on only meeting the federal benchmark.

That’s because the APS policy comes with a bigger cost.

If schools at the 70 percent threshold are still funded next year, nine more schools would be added to the Title I list including two high schools carrying a price tag of $1.7 million, according to the district. Funding those schools comes at the expense of elementary and middle schools where officials say the funds may have a higher impact.

Demographic changes are mostly to blame for the funding predicament, according to school officials.

In Aurora, the overall uptick in income is generally not because impoverished families are lifting themselves out of poverty.

Brett Johnson, the district financial chief, pointed to poor families leaving Aurora because of the rising cost of living, driving down would-be Title I recipients.

More affluent residents are also moving into the eastern side of the district.  In general, the district is also losing students at a historic rate due to demographic changes and lingering, low birth rates during the Great Recession a decade ago.

APS encompasses much of north and central Aurora, some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city, but it also includes wealthier residents living in brand-new subdivisions on the city’s booming eastern edge.

This year, the nearly 30 schools receiving Title I funds are generally in the city’s north and west neighborhoods.

These are mostly elementary schools, including: Laredo, Kenton, Fulton and Montview. But the list also includes Aurora West College Preparatory Academy and Aurora Hills Middle School, as well as charter schools Vega Collegiate Academy, Vanguard Classical School West and Lotus School for Excellence. More schools will be added to the list next year, but by raising the bar for funding eligibility, APS could cut that number down.

The funds are valued in the district, and research indicates staff and resources funded with Title I funds may be important for student success. Colorado Department of Education studies suggest schools receiving Title I funds tend to spur growth in low-income students’ test scores.

With another 10 percent cut in the funds probably coming down the pike next year, the school board will consider whether the district should keep things as they are or chart a new course of action.

APS options:

Keeping the status quo, 70 percent funding arrangement. This would include funding nine more schools next year including two high schools with a combined 4,000 students. This option could drain from $60,000 to $260,000 from existing Title I schools.

Keeping funding at the 70 percent threshold, but excluding the two high schools. This plan drains $30,000 to $170,000 from current Title I schools.

Maintaining the 70 percent funding arrangement for all schools, but directing less funding per-student to all of them. Current Title I schools could lose from $42,000 to $213,000.

Raising the school funding threshold to 75 percent impoverished or more. Current Title I schools would lose from $19,000 to $144,000 next year.

Correction: A previous version of the story stated the school board would vote on a policy recommendation Dec. 17. There will be no such vote.