Aurora Public Schools (APS) wants to establish a middle school/high school campus next to Stapleton on properties fronting 25th Ave. in Aurora. APS’s goal for the campus appears to have been catalyzed by the need to provide new educational opportunities for the “Northwest Aurora” community and the coming need to educate new students who will live in Stapleton-Aurora homes, and because the district owns land where it could build a school. That opportunity is accompanied by the challenge facing the schools in NW Aurora: Based on their past performance, they are in need of a serious transformation.
With 322 residential units coming to the portion of Stapleton located in the city limits of Aurora (south of 26th Ave.), a new pool of students will be arriving in Aurora schools. As part of its approval of a new residential development, APS required Forest City to dedicate land for a school. That land (1.7 acres), located between Fulton and Galena streets, has been conveyed to APS.
Utility and grading work is well underway and Forest City expects to deliver lots to builders by this September. The first homes could be occupied next year.
Superintendent Munn says, “Suddenly, we had a significant portion of property with something in the middle of it.” That something is the 1.7 acres occupied by the South Stapleton Warehouse property. Its acquisition would create a unified “contiguous parcel to create a more coherent campus.” Munn also pointed to adjacent improvements such as the Moorhead Recreation Center (currently being expanded) and ballfields to be located in Stapleton Aurora as potential shared-use facilities that could make a 25th Ave. campus financially feasible.
The challenge facing APS was euphemistically characterized in the letter of invitation to DSST: “APS recognizes that we must engage in transformative practices to serve the Aurora community.” Simply put, the one APS school in NW Aurora, Fletcher Elementary, has been underperforming for years to the point that last winter the school board voted to convert Fletcher to a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. That conversion begins this school year and will be phased in over four years.
Bringing in DSST
Beyond the struggles of the elementary school, the district says there is a “need for APS to increase science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities in light of the business community in the area.” In Munn’s letter to Kurtz, the superintendent says the school board has “heard calls for increasing STEM opportunities from Don Elliman, the chancellor of the Anschutz campus and Dan Ritchie, the chair of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority. DSST’s model as an open enrollment STEM program is a solid response to this community interest.”
For his part, Kurtz says he is “flattered and honored” at the APS invitation. He cautions that the campus is “just an idea and there is much to work out.” DSST currently operates 12 schools on seven campuses. Although DSST has received invitations from New York City, Louisiana and the state of Washington, it has not yet expanded beyond DPS boundaries.
Kurtz’s letter to APS sets forth some “criteria” for establishing a partnership with APS. One requirement is a minimum of four schools on two campuses. Kurtz says this is necessary as a matter of scale: “Going to a new district, there’s a lot of work and energy engaging a new community and a new system as a partner. It is important to us to have a couple of schools in a district if we’re going to do that.” The other criterion states that Aurora Public Schools “should ultimately lead this (fundraising) effort and carry the responsibility for its success.”
For his part, Munn acknowledges that much work and uncertainty remain. In fact, an excessive price established by the courts for the warehouse property might itself cause this whole concept “to come crashing down.” One alternative concept would have the district construct a “child development center” (pre-school) on the land it already owns in the area.
Nevertheless, it is clear that a DSST campus is Munn’s first choice. He refers to it as ASSET – the Aurora School for Science, Engineering and Technology.
What needs to happen next?
Three steps are underway to build the school:
November Bond Issue. The APS school board recently authorized a vote this fall on a $300 million bond issue that includes funding for the 25th Ave. campus. The funds include projects throughout APS including an unspecified amount for “building a new 6th grade through 12th grade school in northwest Aurora.”
Property Acquisition. APS already owns 7.47 acres of land on the north side of 25th Ave. between Fulton and Iola streets. Fletcher Elementary School occupies the east end of this acreage. The school district has initiated condemnation proceedings to acquire an additional 1.7 acres between Galena and Geneva streets, which would bring their total holdings in this area to 9.17 acres. That parcel is occupied by the 42,500-square-foot building known as South Stapleton Office Warehouse Park. It contains 14 tenants including the Neighborhood Music Stapleton business. Tenants have received letters from APS representatives indicating the district anticipates securing ownership of the parcel by March of 2017.
Invitation to Denver School of Science and Technology. Letters between APS and DSST were exchanged in July. A letter to DSST signed by APS Superintendent Rico Munn on July 13 stated, “APS invites DSST leaders to submit an application to open a charter school to serve grades 6-12 in north Aurora … APS is interested in discussing a partnership with DSST to finance the construction of a new building. Roughly, we propose that as part of a possible November 2016 bond election, APS dedicate sufficient funds to support no more than 50% of the cost of construction of a district-owned building. The remaining 50% or more would need to be donated or raised by DSST … we request a letter of interest by August 2, 2016.”
DSST CEO Bill Kurtz responded promptly on July 22: “We stand ready to begin a conversation with you, the Board of Education, and the community as to whether we would be the right partner and how we could best serve … DSST would be pleased to work with you to fundraise the additional funding needed to build this campus.”
Condemnation Alarms Owner, Tenant. Skye Barker Maa, owner of Neighborhood Music Stapleton, along with 13 other tenants, recently received formal legal notice of “eviction and condemnation” from their leased space on E. 25th Ave. in Aurora. Aurora Public Schools intends to acquire the property, possibly as soon as next March. The district commenced condemnation proceedings after efforts to acquire the property through good faith negotiations failed.
The tenants at Stapleton South Office Warehouse Park, 10255 E. 25th Ave., include the music school, a charter school, youth-serving programs and several light industrial users. Neighborhood Music is in the second year of a five-year lease. The property is owned by Stapleton residents Matt and Marti (Page) Hand. Hand is a pastor at the Grace City Denver church and has recently converted a portion of the 42,500-square-foot building into a community center available not only to his congregation but community groups as well.
Both Hand and Barker Maa commented on the irony of condemnation proceedings against a facility focused on school and community programs so that it could be acquired for school purposes. In fact, Hand used the same phrase to describe his facility—“bridge between two communites” —as Supt. Munn used in explaining his hopes for an academic campus along 25th Ave. Hand hopes he and tenants who have invested in the building improvement will receive fair compensation but notes that because no federal dollars are involved in the purchase, there is no requirement for relocation assistance.
Barker Maa holds out hope that tenants will be allowed to remain at the facility for some period after the district’s acquisition of the property. She says that even with a successful bond issue in November, it will be some time before the district could begin to operate a new school where the South Stapleton Warehouse is located. Barker Maa says she is in negotiations to move her school to Stanley Marketplace. She says Neighborhood Music Stapleton, with its 40 teachers and 300 students, “will absolutely survive.”