The “islands of excellence” in the Aurora Public Schools will remain islands if school finance isn’t reformed, district Superintendent John Barry testified Tuesday in the Lobato education funding lawsuit.
Barry was the second major-district chief to testify as plaintiffs’ lawyers work to build their case that the state’s school funding system doesn’t satisfy the “thorough and uniform” education requirements of the state constitution. Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson testified last week.
Barry repeatedly stressed his worry that while Aurora has improved student achievement since he became superintendent five years ago, that improvement can’t be accelerated under the current funding system and its restrictions.
“We can’t duplicate the islands of excellence” and can’t make further improvements “at the level and speed we want” under the current system, Barry said during his two and a half hours of testimony.
Barry said the district is operating at a steady “velocity” toward its goal of improving achievement so that every student graduates from high school “with the ability to attend college without remediation.”
But, without sufficient “acceleration,” Barry said that goal wouldn’t be reached “in my lifetime.”
Barry said the district has experienced $41 million in cuts in the last two years. The cuts total $70 million (including money that would have been generated by a full interpretation of Amendment 23) since he became superintendent, he said.
“That’s an incredibly hard hit.”
Budget cuts next year “could set us back,” Barry said, noting that achievement scores this year were “flat.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Kenzo Kawanabe asked Barry if he thinks the Aurora schools are providing a “thorough and uniform” education.
“My answer to that is no. The only thing I can tell you is I know it when I see it, and I’m not seeing it. … We’re losing kids because we can’t replicate [reforms]. We’re making progress, but we’re not making it fast enough to be thorough and uniform.”
Barry also was asked about recent state education reforms such as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2009 accountability law. He said he supports most of both programs but noted “they’re unfunded mandates.” He also said, “We’ve moved the bar … toward more central control” of education by the state.
On cross-examination, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carey Markel asked Barry if he testified to legislators in 2010 that he could implement the new educator evaluation system without extra cost to the district.
Barry agreed he’d said that, but added, “We have to have the state funded properly” to implement the law, and that hasn’t happened yet.
Highlights of the day:
TONE: After Barry’s testimony, the day took a more technical tone as witnesses testified about the details of funding for English language learning programs and for special education.
Lisa Escàrcega, chief accountability and research officer for the Aurora schools, testified about ELL support, saying, “I’m unaware of a district” in Colorado that has a fully successful ELL program.
Scheduled to testify in the afternoon were Colorado special education expert Lucinda Hundley and Margaret J. McLaughlin of the University of Maryland, a national expert in the field.
McLaughlin prepared a report before the trial in which she concluded, “It is my opinion that Colorado is not providing sufficient funding … to ensure that [schools] can provide an appropriate education to each child with a disability as required under the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, the Exceptional Children’s Education Act, and through judicial interpretation.” (Read her full report.)
QUOTE: “We are confident that we have identified the things that are working. The challenge is I can’t replicate it fast enough.” – John Barry
MANEUVERING: Cross-examination Tuesday was relatively tame. At one point, after Barry gave a particularly long answer, Markel noted dryly, “I’m not sure I heard a response to my question.”
COLOR: Examination of every witness begins with their background and resume. Kawanabe lingered long over on Barry’s resume, trying to stress the superintendent’s background as a 30-year Air Force officer, including stints as a fighter pilot, commander of air bases and Pentagon staffer.
Much later in the morning, Kawanabe asked again, “You retired as a two-star general, is that correct?” After Barry said yes, the lawyer quickly asked, “What impact does education have on national security?”
UPCOMING: Likely witnesses Wednesday include Ty Ryland of the Sierra Grande school board, Creede Superintendent Buck Stroh and Cortez teachers Justin Bayles and Matt Keefauver.