Aurora schools, CSU on­line ham­mer out their new deal

Pro­posed part­ner­ship in­volves swap­ping build­ing space

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Ye­se­nia Robles

Seven months af­ter voters backed the project as part of a $300 mil­lion bond pack­age, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State Univer­sity are ne­go­ti­at­ing terms of an un­usual part­ner­ship that in­volves swap­ping build­ing space for schol­ar­ships and other ser­vices.

Un­der the pro­posed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 mil­lion to con­struct a new build­ing to house CSU’s Global Cam­pus, an on­line de­gree pro­gram un­der the Colorado State Univer­sity sys­tem. If board mem­bers ap­prove the fi­nal deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through con­ven­tional lease pay­ments but in some com­bi­na­tion of full-ride schol­ar­ships, dis­counted tu­ition for district grad­u­ates or teach­ers and staff train­ing.

Aurora Su­per­in­ten­dent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open an­other door to col­lege for Aurora stu­dents, many of whom come from low-in­come fam­i­lies.

But some school board mem­bers have ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about how many Aurora stu­dents will ben­e­fit, and one has raised ques­tions about Munn’s po­si­tion as a CSU board mem­ber.

For the project to even be in­cluded on last fall’s bond ques­tion, state law had to change.

Af­ter lob­by­ing from Aurora school of­fi­cials, law­mak­ers did just that, al­low­ing for bond-fi­nanced projects to build not just school district build­ings but also build­ings to lease to higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions.

Aurora Public Schools then in­cluded the project in its bond pack­age, which is also pay­ing for two new school build­ings, fixes to ex­ist­ing build­ings and tech­nol­ogy up­grades.

CSU-Global cur­rently pays $500,000 per year to lease of­fice space near the Den­ver Tech Cen­ter, in the south sub­urbs.

“What we are do­ing right now is pay­ing a land­lord,” said CSU-Global pres­i­dent Becky Takeda-Tin­ker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and in­side the public sec­tor, it makes a lot of sense.”

Plenty of un­cer­tain­ties re­main. While the district has hired an ar­chi­tect, a site has not yet been de­ter­mined.

The ini­tial pro­posed site, on va­cant land the district owns near Wil­liam Smith High School on Air­port Boule­vard, may not be avail­able be­cause of fed­eral ease­ments on the prop­erty. Munn said of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing about five ad­di­tional sites.

As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on mar­ket rates and the ser­vices the district re­ceives must be worth that amount. But since a lo­ca­tion hasn’t been set, of­fi­cials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms con­tinue to change, Munn said, in part, be­cause a lo­ca­tion for the new build­ing hasn’t been fi­nal­ized.

Ques­tions and con­cerns about the part­ner­ship came up at an Aurora school board meet­ing in De­cem­ber, when some board mem­bers said they were learn­ing for the first time that stu­dents would not be able to en­roll at CSU-Global di­rectly af­ter high school.

Be­cause CSU-Global is set up to serve non­tra­di­tional stu­dents, and be­cause state of­fi­cials didn’t want the school to com­pete with ex­ist­ing schools and com­mu­nity col­leges, the school only takes trans­fer stu­dents who al­ready have more than 12 cred­its, un­less they’re from out­side Colorado.

Munn says the clear goal of the part­ner­ship is to in­crease the district’s col­lege go­ing rate, and he said CSU-Global ad­dresses some of the is­sues Aurora grad­u­ates cite in not go­ing to col­lege, such as not hav­ing the abil­ity or de­sire to move away from their com­mu­nity, or the need to work while go­ing to school.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Colorado De­part­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, about 42 per­cent of the district’s grad­u­ates went on to col­lege in 2015, which is lower than the state’s over­all col­lege-go­ing rate of 56.5 per­cent.

If the same Aurora stu­dents are go­ing to col­lege, but just chang­ing which school they go to, then the part­ner­ship will not have been a suc­cess, Munn said.

Michele Moses, pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional foun­da­tions and poli­cies at the Univer­sity of Colorado, Boul­der School of Ed­u­ca­tion, said that she be­lieves the pro­posal could in­crease col­lege ac­cess, but that the district should ques­tion what an on­line-only col­lege could pro­vide that other col­leges can’t, given the over­all bad track record of on­line schools, par­tic­u­larly with at-risk stu­dents.

“It seems the ques­tion re­ally is, ‘Is the in­vest­ment that this is go­ing to take for them, is that go­ing to be worth the ben­e­fit, given that we have all of th­ese con­cerns right off the bat?’ ” Moses said.

“If the part­ner­ship with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puz­zle of col­lege ac­cess, then maybe, why not?”

Munn said he ex­pects to have the ma­jor pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a let­ter of in­tent this fall. And work on the build­ing should be able to start this win­ter so the build­ing could be ready next year.

“We know how it can ben­e­fit stu­dents and we know dif­fer­ent ways it can ben­e­fit stu­dents,” Munn said.

“Now it’s about us­ing the re­sources that we have to struc­ture it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”

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