William Blevins, 12, stares out as Iron Man, played by Officer Steve Larson, swings over to the window to say hello, Oct. 17, after rappelling from the rooftop of Children's Hospital. Superhero friends rappelled from the rooftop to surprise patients and their families, stopping at various floors of the hospital to wave hello. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Officer Jeremiah Miles, dressed as Superman, waves to a floor of children, Oct. 17, after rappelling from the rooftop of Children's Hospital. Superhero friends rappelled from the rooftop to surprise patients and their families, stopping at various floors of the hospital to wave hello. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Jessica Tate, 15, left, and Pamela Rowland, 15, compete in a fencing match during the 34th annual Colorado Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp on Thurdsday June 8, 2017 at Aurora Central High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
For Aurora, immigration tops concerns for the entire city
From city government all the way to Washington, immigration was at the forefront of policy concerns for many Aurora residents this year, as Donald Trump took office after a year of campaign promises to secure borders and crack down on undocumented residents.
Trump rescinded a federal policy in September that gives some protections to young immigrants, also known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Republicans said the executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, signed by Barack Obama, should have been an act of Congress, not the president.
Now, lawmakers across the political spectrum agree that protections should be extended, but a deal hasn’t been met yet, as Republicans want border security included in a DREAM Act. Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman has repeatedly said since the policy was ended that those under the DACA policy should be able to remain in the U.S.
He submitted the BRIDGE Act, which would extend DACA for three years while Congress finds a permanent solution, but that legislation took a back seat as lawmakers thought they were making progress on a Dream Act.
“I believe the president would sign it if we could pass it,” Coffman said of his legislation. “I believe the president just wants to let (the DACA issue) go, but now he doesn’t have a choice.”
Last week, Coffman told the Aurora Sentinel he thought a deal could be made this week, but now that doesn’t seem to be the case. Still, Coffman is adamant that something must be done before protections from DACA end and Dreamers are at risk of deportation.
Community College of Aurora President Betsy Oudenhoven said the end of DACA would have a substantial effect on CCA, not only for those students who have fallen under the rule’s protection, but for the entire community.
“DACA allows these students to be fully engaged in their education and their communities. The freedom from fear allows them to make the best use of their intelligence, work ethic, and talent to make the kinds of contributions our society needs from our young people,” Oudenhoven said in an email exchange. “It takes a lot of motivation for these students to pursue a college degree and we don’t want them to lose hope that they too can pursue the American dream.”
Aurora Public Schools passed a resolution this spring essentially declaring APS a ‘sanctuary school district.’ The resolution forbids school employees from divulging information about citizen status and directs the district to be prepared to handle children whose undocumented immigrant parents might have been detained by federal immigration police.
But the City of Aurora wouldn’t go as far to make a commitment to being a sanctuary city for its residents. In early 2017, Trump said federal grants would be withheld from cities or states that deem themselves sanctuary cities.
In 2016, Aurora police received more than $160,000 in grants from the Justice Department, money they used for new motorcycles, recording equipment for interview rooms and fingerprinting devices. But the department’s reliance on federal funds goes beyond that and includes arrangements with various federal agencies, including the DEA and FBI.
Police declined to comment as to whether the department would change its enforcement policies because of the threat of losing funding.
By a vote of 6-4, city council members passed a resolution declaring Aurora is not a so-called sanctuary city, and officials will continue to act in the best interest of Aurora’s many foreign-born residents by continuing to cooperate with federal immigration laws.
Council members Marsha Berzins, Barb Cleland, Bob LeGare and Charlie Richardson voted against the measure.
Later in the year after DACA was rescinded, Richardson submitted a non-binding resolution to city council that, if passed, would have supported DACA and Coffman’s BRIDGE Act. But some councilors thought it to be too broad and sent it to committee.
Eventually, after weeks of analysis and three versions of the resolution, council passed a “clean version.” It mostly resembled the original resolution, but did not include support of Coffman’s BRIDGE Act, though council never said they opposed it. Council members also agreed the city would talk to its federal delegation about DACA solutions — which Berzins confirmed took place.
Four new members join Aurora City Council
It was a historic election for the City of Aurora. Four new members were elected and Councilwoman Marsha Berzins retained her seat in Ward III.
Three of the newly elected members were women and identify as progressives on the historically conservative council. Allison Hiltz, who won an at-large seat, Crystal Murillo, an upstart candidate who beat incumbent Sally Mounier, and Nicole Johnston, who replaced Renie Peterson, were all graduates of Emerge Colorado, a program that gives women Democrats a crash course in how to run a political campaign.
Dave Gruber, a retired Air Force colonel who claimed the other at-large seat, wasn’t certain he won until nearly three weeks after the election. He and former Regional Transportation District Chairman Tom Tobiassen were so close in votes that Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties were forced to recount ballots. Less than 50 votes separated the two candidates.
Aurora Proposition 2K, approved by city voters in November, brings a pay increase for the mayor and council members. The charter was changed to reflect an annual salary of $80,000 for the mayor, $18,500 for city council members and $20,550 for the mayor-pro tem. Up until the vote, council members made $13,950, the mayor made $60,226 and the mayor pro tem netted $15,953.
A ballot question that would have asked voters to approve an entertainment district in the far northeastern portion of the city was pulled before the election after city leaders decided they didn’t have a strong enough campaign to push the measure through.
Mounier said she would run the ballot question again if she was elected. Now, with Murillo in that seat, it’s unclear what the fate of the entertainment district is.
In the final days of campaigning, the same oil and gas industry political action committee that dropped $100,000 in the Broomfield fracking ballot question poured that amount into Aurora City Council races at the last minute, backing two incumbents, a former state lawmaker, a local chamber of commerce favorite and a former Aurora cop.
The cash was used to primarily buy TV campaign commercials, robocalls and live calls to potential voters for at-large council candidates Tim Huffman and David Gruber, Ward II candidate Bob Hagedorn, Ward III candidate Marsha Berzins and Ward I candidate Sally Mounier.
The five races also had a handful of controversial moments. In the at-large race, the Aurora Sentinel reported that candidate Abel Laeke had a lengthy criminal history, including a felony charge for sexual contact without consent. The case, though he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in 2004, landed the candidate on the Colorado sex offender registry.
Ward III candidate Naquetta Ricks was accused of actually living in Ward V, where she owns a home but told the Sentinel her sister currently resides.
A shared Facebook post from 2015 from at-large candidate Russ Wagner raised eyebrows for how it contextualized numbers claiming more white people have been killed by black people than vice versa.
The infographic-style post was titled “Looks Like Black Privilege To Me,” but Wagner said it was just an interesting post and decided to share it.
Rescue crews carry the body of 6-year-old David pluckett out of the water on Tuesday Jan. 03, 2017 at Olympic Park. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Lee Lindholm, Park Ranger, greets Maria, left and Paco, on Saturday June 24, 2017 at Plains Conservation Center. The two donkeys along with over 100 sheep were introduced to the open space to stimulate the growth of native grasses. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Susan Boatright punches a punching bag on Tuesday May 23, 2017 at Title Boxing Club. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
No congregate living facilities near schools
City officials narrowly moved forward with a plan to keep proposed “congregate living” facilities away from schools and hospitals. The action prevented Boulder-based Bridge House’s Right To Work program from moving into a space on East Colfax Avenue in Ward II.
The program helps give the homeless, some with a criminal history, work skills. While Right To Work was unable to move into defunct old Bingo Hall in northeast Aurora, it’s currently perusing a location on Peoria Street at Parker Road.
Top city administrator retires
Aurora City Manager Skip Noe announced in the fall that Nov. 1 would be his last day on the job, ending his seven-year stint as the city’s top administrator. Many saw the announcement as a surprise but credited Noe with fostering growth in the city after the recession.
His tenure was not without turbulence, however. There were at least three attempts to oust Noe in 2016. Council is tasked with replacing Noe in 2018, and has talked about upping the pay for the position to make the position more attractive to strong candidates.
R Line escapes cuts, for now
The Regional Transportation District decided in October to leave Aurora’s R Line schedules intact throughout the week and limit trains to every 30 minutes on weekends after proposing the route be significantly cut.
Riders and local leaders protested the cuts on the line, which had only been running around 6 months before the proposal. Questions of how to strengthen ridership still remain. Mayor Steve Hogan said marketing should be better for the line, and if RTD wants Aurora to help, they should ask.
Highlands comes to Aurora
In March, a group of developers announced plans for a massive proposed northeast development dubbed Aurora Highlands. Estimated to one day house about 23,000 families, the area would include several housing options, including attached homes starting at about $200,000 and single family detached houses priced at more than $1 million. If density of the housing component mirrors that currently in Aurora, it would mean an additional 60,000 more residents.
But now there might be a snag. That corner of the city, along with much of the undeveloped plains of eastern and northern Colorado, has seen oil and gas drilling activity in recent years, and oil and gas interests own significant stretches of surface mineral rights in spots where they one day hope to drill. Carlo Ferreira, the developer behind Highlands, said he is hoping to work out an agreement with the drillers.
Bill Cary looks picks a lemon from a lemon tree in the greenhouse on Friday May 26, 2017 at Pickens Technical College. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Construction of what will be the Grand Lodge at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
James Winkler, a retired physician, joins protesters before a town hall meeting with US Rep., Mike Coffman on Wednesday April 12, 2017 at Education Building 2 South in the CU Anschutz Campus. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Excelsior youth center closes its doors
After more than four decades and a local history that goes back more than a century, Aurora-based Excelsior, which offers services for youth facing social, emotional and behavioral issues, ended all of its clinical programs by the end of November.
Over the past three years Excelsior transformed from a residential treatment facility to offering a network of community-based services. But CEO Susan J. Hébert said there just wasn’t enough funding to keep operating the organization.
Gaylord makes huge strides in 2017
For years, the biggest question surrounding the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center was: Would it ever happen?
Crews definitively answered that with a 2-million-square-foot “yes” in 2017.
The project on Aurora’s eastern plains motored closer to becoming reality this year as crews made serious progress toward a late 2018 opening.
With only about a year left before the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center opens, Dave Bray couldn’t help but grin as he strolled across the dirt toward the south side of the hulking hotel-construction in November.
Bray, vice president of architecture and construction for RIDA Development, and the man leading the construction project, noted that because of some shrewd building decisions and mild weather, the biggest hotel project under construction in the country is right on track — despite a planned time-line that Bray admits was “aggressive.”
“If you had told me a year ago we would be this far along, I would have taken it,” he said as he traipsed across the former dusty prairie scrub that will one day be dotted with lounge chairs and guests relaxing outside the pool house.
The late 2018 opening date hotel and city officials have targeted remains in reach, Bray said.
So far, this winter has been particularly mild, which has helped, Bray said. But beyond the benefits of sunny days and minimal snow, he said the project is motoring along because of some decisions project leaders made early on.
One of the biggest was to put a false roof in early on about half way up the building. That meant the work on the lower levels could go forward with some cover well before the actual roof was complete.
And crews hit their goal of having the project “dried in” by Thanksgiving, meaning the roof is complete enough to allow interior work — in particular the daunting task of hanging drywall for 1,500 rooms — to go forward regardless of how nasty the Colorado winter might get.
Construction should be largely complete sometime next summer, Bray said, but that doesn’t mean work will be done.
Furnishing a project this size will take months, Bray said, and already work is underway to get much of the furniture and equipment Gaylord needs ordered.
And it isn’t just the more than 1,300 construction workers — plus a few hundred staffing the small city of construction trailers on the southern edge of the site — working on the project every day. A few blocks to the northwest is Gaylord’s temporary sales office where staffers have already booked about 600,000 room nights for the hotel.
Michael Kofsky, director of sales and marketing for Gaylord Rockies, said about 85 percent of the clients who have booked Gaylord have never hosted their convention in Colorado.
To help with their sales pitch, Gaylord built two model hotel rooms at the sales office. Just down a hallway from where the sales team sits are two fully-furnished rooms that look exactly like the bulk of the 1,500 rooms at Gaylord Rockies will.
After the city’s boisterous announcement in 2011 that Nashville-based Gaylord had chosen Aurora for its next hotel and conference center, the project appeared to be the sort of marquis development city officials had clamored after for decades.
But with more than $300 million in city and state tax incentives to be handed to the developer, the project raised some hackles even early on.
The plan initially envisioned the National Western Stock Show moving to an adjacent plot of land. Denver officials leery of losing the iconic stock show quickly nixed that move.
Then, in 2012, Gaylord Entertainment said they were getting out of the hotel development business and selling the four Gaylord hotels to Marriott.
The project also faced a lawsuit from a group of Denver hoteliers questioning the various tax incentive plans that had made it possible.
The uncertainty surrounding the lawsuits meant a planned fall 2014 groundbreaking came and went without a shovel in the dirt, but the project eventually prevail.
Lois Moersen participates in a barre class on Thursday Feb. 02, 2017 at Chelsea Place. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Alissa Davis enters the atrium of the children's hospital with a giant teddy bear to donate Dec. 3 during the 32nd Annual Children's Hospital Colorado Toy Run. This is Alissa's second year participating in the event, where thousands of motorcyclists meet at Aurora Sports Park and travel in a convoy to the hospital to deliver their toy donations for the patients to receive during the holidays. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
10th grader, Irl Paulalengan sits for a portrait at Rangeview High School. Paulalengan won the Project Next Viewers Choice Award at the 2017 Denver Film Festival for her short film, which she wrote, filmed and edited. "Dear People" is an open letter to the audience about the power of self acceptance and the beauty within. Portrait by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Fernando Gray stands for a portrait Dec. 19 at Fire Station No. 8. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
New boss for Aurora fire
Aurora got a new fire chief in 2017 and didn’t take long for Fernando Gray’s friendly southern drawl to become something of a fixture at Aurora’s fire stations.
When he came on board as Aurora’s new fire chief in June, Gray set about visiting each of the city’s 15 stations.
And in his half a year at the helm, Gray hasn’t been shy about making changes.
He scrapped one of the four deputy chief positions — which was already vacant — and used the savings from that to promote six lieutenants to captain. He also shifted some training resources from new recruits to veteran firefighters, a move he said ensures those experienced crews get additional skills.
Most importantly though, Gray said, he has set about making sure the department’s focus is on what it does most: emergency medical service calls.
Prison officials finally reveal theater shooter’s location
This year marked five years since a gunman opened fire on Aurora movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 70 others.
And finally, after months of pleading from survivors and their relatives, the public learned in 2017 just where that gunman is being held.
James Holmes is being housed at a facility in Pennsylvania, the Federal Bureau of Prisons disclosed this year.
Holmes’ location had been a tightly held secret after he was moved out of Colorado last year because he was attacked by another inmate. Colorado prison officials had argued that they could not say where he was being held because of an agreement with states that take out-of-state prisoners.
In April, a state committee that focuses on victims’ rights determined that Colorado’s corrections department should have done more to inform victims of the Aurora shooting that Holmes, now 29, was transferred out of state to serve his life sentence.
The action came in response to complaints from family members of some of the victims, and Colorado’s corrections department agreed to update its victim notification policies.
Several survivors of the attack said they were upset after corrections officials quietly transferred Holmes. The department repeatedly refused to tell the public — including prosecutors, survivors and the families of the dead — where or how he was being held.
Documents provided to the Associated Press and other news outlets though open-records requests revealed that Holmes was transferred out of the state partly because another inmate pushed his way through a partially open door and attacked him when he was being held in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, the state’s highest security prison.
Prison officials believed other inmates were likely to keep targeting Holmes “because of the high profile nature of his crimes,” according to the documents.
Aurora remains state’s ‘safest’ city
In a statement brimming with pride, Aurora police and city officials announced again this year that Aurora is “the safest large city in Colorado.”
The moniker means that when compared to the state’s two larger cities of Denver and Colorado Springs, Aurora saw less crime per-capita in 2016, same as it did in 2015, 2014 and 2013.
When compared to other cities around the nation with at least 250,000 people, Aurora, with 366,477 people, ranked No. 25.
“Our ranking as the safest large city in Colorado, and as one of the safest major cities in the country would not be possible without the dedication and hard work of every member of the Aurora Police Department,” Aurora police Chief Nick Metz said in a statement announcing the ranking. “Our success in keeping Aurora safe would not be possible without the partnerships we have established with the members of the community we serve, and by working closely and collaboratively with the Mayor and Councilmembers of the City of Aurora.”
Focus on Aurora’s crime rate comes from years of consternation at city hall with how local media report Aurora crime. Past city officials have even appealed to newspaper and television stations about how “Aurora” makes its way into broadcast and print headlines, but how Aurora officials claimed that Denver and other communities usually do not.
Mayor Steve Hogan and others have said that the result has been the public perception that there’s more crime in Aurora than there actually is.
City officials regularly say that much of the public is unaware of how large Aurora really is, and that the real gauge of public safety is the rate of crime, not the number of times media report incidents. So for the last several years, Aurora officials have focused on what they say are earmarks of a safe community.
The “safest large city” designation announced last week doesn’t come from some outside agency. Instead, it is bestowed on Aurora by Aurora officials based on statistics from the FBI and calculations by Aurora police crime analysts.
Aurora police spokesman Officer Bill Hummel said the department compares Aurora only to other cities with a minimum of 250,000 residents and only to those cities that report major crime data to the FBI.
That data covers murders, rapes, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.
Not all cities contribute to the FBI statistics. Arvada and Centennial, for example, are not included in this year’s FBI statistics.
Even when compared to other Colorado cities with 100,000 people or more, Aurora still ranks relatively high.
The city’s crime rate of 35.89 ranks trails Fort Collins, with a rate of 26.58, and Boulder with a rank of 32.35. The city also trails Thornton, but just barely as that north-metro suburb comes in with a crime rate of 35.07.
Aurora ranks ahead of smaller Colorado towns including Greeley, Westminster, Lakewood and Pueblo.
Gateway High School students line up in the check out lane after finishing the 4th Annual Shop With an Oly event Dec. 9 at the Target on E. Ellsworth Ave. Four Gateway students, who raised $100 per group, were paired up with an elementary school student from APS and the student was allowed $40 of the $100 to spend on themselves, with the remainder going to getting gifts for their family members. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Laura Lustig, a dental student at the Anschutz Medical Campus, views the collection of Rembrandt etchings, Oct. 9 in The Art Gallery of the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
The etching, Adoration of the Shepards with Lamp is seen through a magnifying glass in The Art Gallery of the Fulginiti Pavilion of Bioethics and Humanities. Viewers of the exhibit are encouraged to use the magnifying glasses to give a better view of the elaborate details of each etching. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Endale Getahun adjusts the sliders of his mixing board, Oct. 2 in KETO studio, located in an administration building on the Aurora Central High School campus. His radio station, KETO 93.9, went live on Sept. 11 2017, Ethiopia's independence day, and is the only Ethiopian FM radio station in the U.S. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Amazon finds prime Aurora locale in 2017
Jutting out of windy plains on the city’s northeastern edge, the new 1-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center is hard to miss.
And in 2017, that massive facility opened its doors and immediately started hiring close to 1,000 people and slinging packages by the thousands.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said the project — Amazon’s second in Aurora, which is thus far the only Colorado city Amazon calls home — is a sign of what can happen as the city works to lure big-name brands.
“Development has been happening in Aurora for years, and this is an example of that,” he said.
Officials from the e-commerce giant showed off the massive distribution center to local elected officials and economic development leaders this spring.
Paul Pace, director of operations for Amazon’s west coast fulfillment centers, said the site employed about 750 workers during construction.
Aurora city council unanimously approved a resolution granting up to $1.18 million in tax breaks for Amazon to build the project. The agreement formalizes a deal city officials made with Amazon in previous closed-door talks. The company announced its plans to move to Aurora earlier this year.
According to the city, the new Amazon facility will generate about $130 million in investments.
The thousand or so employees who work at the site will earn an average salary of about $30,000, plus benefits.
The Amazon center is expected to generate about $6.5 million in taxes in the coming decade, according to Chad Argentar, the city’s economic and business development supervisor. Without the $1.1 million rebate, the city will still receive about $5.4 million in taxes from the company.
The project is one of several massive distribution centers to open in the far northeast corner of the city in recent years.
While the site — which is roughly at Smith Road and Picadilly Road, just a short jaunt north of Interstate 70 — is several miles from the city’s center, officials say this corner of town is where Aurora’s future growth will happen.
The area has ample undeveloped land and easy access to both I-70 and the E-470 toll road. It’s also within a few miles of Denver International Airport and Front Range Airport.
Fan Fare gets new name and bright future, finally
The plot of land near East First Avenue and Havana Street has been called many things over the years.
Fan Fare, other times Fan Fair, sometimes just Fanfare. Occasionally it’s dubbed Havana North.
And in the corridors of city hall, the site — whether when the goofy building with the bulbous roof was there or in the years it has been a vacant sea of dirt — that chunk of real estate has likely been called far, far crueler things. Sadly, many of those monikers dropped on the chunk of land that has long bedeviled city leaders are unfit for this family newspaper.
But in 2017, it got a new name: Argenta.
Developers from Dillon Place LLC. said this year they are planning a mixed-use development at the site that will include 86 for-sale, multi-level townhomes, 207 mid-rise, market rate rental apartments and almost 20,000 square feet of retail space.
Aurora goes fireworks friendly in 2017
Aurora’s new more-lenient fireworks rules didn’t stop many revelers from reaching for the illegal fireworks during their July 4 celebrations in 2017.
Police officers and firefighters — who patrol the streets together around the holiday searching for illegal fireworks — issued 37 summons this year, up from 20 a year ago. And fireworks caused two structure fires in 2017 compared to just one a year ago. Fireworks sparked 36 vegetation blazes compared to 20 in 2016.
In a move that proved largely uncontroversial, city council early this year voted to allow some fireworks within the city limits. The rules allowed for fireworks that don’t explode or shoot in the air.
Death penalty trial delayed amid mental health questions
The murder trial of a man facing the death penalty after police say he killed his 6-year-old son and raped his ex-girlfriend has been pushed back amid questions about the man’s mental health.
Brandon Jamaal Johnson, 27, was set to go on trial Oct. 10 on multiple charges, including first-degree murder, stemming from the February 2016 slaying of his son, Riley, in unincorporated Arapahoe County.
But in court last fall Arapahoe County Chief District court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. said that trial date has been vacated. Samour said he will wait to schedule a new trial date until after he rules on whether Johnson must undergo a mental health exam prosecutors are pushing for.
A new trial date has not yet been set.
ACLU files multiple lawsuits against APD
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado this year leveled multiple charges against Aurora police, accusing them of mistreating black men.
In November they filed a lawsuit on behalf of a disabled black man who says police roughed him up during a 2015 arrest.
Dwight Crews, 60, was arrested in November 2015 at his home in Aurora after his stepdaughter’s husband called police and said Crews assaulted him.
According to the lawsuit, when Crews, who is disabled because of injuries sustained in a car accident, stepped outside of his home two Aurora police officers, Steven Gerdjikian and Ryan Marker, threw him to the ground.
Aurora police said an internal review found no wrongdoing by the officers.
Earlier this year the city paid $110,000 to settle an ACLU case involving Darsean Kelley, a young black man who was tased in the back as he said, “I know my rights.”
The organization also sued police in September on behalf of Omar Hassan, a black man who they say was kicked out of a restaurant by two officers after the police told him “your kind of business is not welcome here.”
School board election brings unified ticket to majority
Even before the first ballot was cast, the November election for the Aurora Public School Board was going to result in a significant change for the direction of Colorado’s fifth largest school district.
Nine candidates were up for four seats on the seven-member board with only incumbent Barbara Yamrick running again. Amber Drevon, the former sitting board president, declined to run for another term. JulieMarie Shepherd Macklin was term limited from running again. And Eric Nelson, who had refused to resign from the board despite pleas from his fellow members to resign due to his extensive falsification of his resume, decided to not run again.
After the dust settled on election night, a unified slate of four progressive candidates supported by the teachers’ union had swept the vote. Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey had all declared separately but after the teachers union decided to back them, they decided to run as a complete slate.
“Honestly I was just hoping for the best. We had heard from people that running as a slate, we might get two of us on the board,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I’m so excited for all of us to join the board.”
The four members will be jumping right in and have some major issues to deal with, including Superintendent Rico Munn’s contract with the district up for possible renewal in 2018. Each member of the slate said they were looking forward to talking with Munn and wanted to approach the relationship fresh and without any preconceived notion.
Aurora Public Schools see improvements, still far behind the pack
Aurora Public School’s 2017 saw some silver linings around the continued troubles facing many of its schools.
APS showed academic growth in the 2016-2017 school year nearly across the board, according to standardized test results from the Colorado Department of Education. But even with the overall growth, performance at APS schools is still below other major school districts and state averages.
The CDE growth ratings are different than achievement scores. While achievement reflects the level at which students are performing at that exact moment, growth scores looks at how a student’s performed in comparison to similar groups that had previously taken the test.
APS students had a growth score of 52 for in English Language Arts, a five-point increase from the previous school year. APS also had a growth score of 50 in math, a four-point increase over the previous school year. The state average for growth is set at a 50 score.
While APS has shown growth, the district’s achievement scores for students are still low compared to other large districts in the state. And the district still has 14 of its schools on the accountability clock, including five that are about to submit their first improvement plans to the CDE.
Century, Crawford and Lyn Knoll elementary schools, Lansing Elementary Community School and Mrachek Middle School have all moved onto the state’s accountability radar this year after rating as priority improvement status. Those schools join Jewell, Kenton, Paris and Virginia Court elementary schools, Aurora Hills Middle School, North Middle School Sciences & Technology Campus, Aurora Central High School and Gateway High School on the accountability clock.
Central High School, entering its sixth year of being in either a turnaround or priority improvement status, avoided drastic action being taken by the state due to its low performance in April when the state board of education approved the school’s turnaround plan.
Jim Servin restocks the near empty shelves at the Friends of St. Andrew food bank, Nov. 28. Food banks like this are particularly busy during this time of the year and are in serious need of donations. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
An F-16 takes off from Buckley Air Force to take place in flight exercises, Aug. 15. US Rep. Mike Coffman is asking for $15.8 million to extend the buffer zone at Buckley, in order keep development a good distance away from the base. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Tim Robles shows off a shadow box that friends and fellow co-workers made in remembrance of Kelly Acosta, which features some of his personal belongings and favorite things, Aug. 14 at the Emerald Isle. Kelly, who was an employee at Emerald Isle, was gunned down in February, while helping his neighbor, who was being assaulted in front of her home. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
APS board member comments during immigration resolution sparks controversy
In May, the APS board decided to reaffirm the district’s commitment to students regardless of immigration status. But Board Director Cathy Wildman came under fire for what some referred to as racist comments she made while discussing undocumented immigration at a May 16 meeting.
While Wildman voted with the rest of the board to approve the resolution, during the discussion period she discussed her ambivalence over the measure because she said it accommodated “rule breakers,” referring to illegal immigrants. She later talked about family members in Arizona who were warned off traveling to border communities because of safety issues created by tension over illegal immigration.
By the next board meeting, audience members were showing up to rebuke Wildman over what they called racist comments. Some of the audience had showed up at the behest of Denver-based A-Plus Colorado, which advocates for education reform, school choice and charter schools and has issued critical audits of APS’s performance. A-Plus Colorado had also posted a critical blog post on its website on Wildman’s remarks.
The remarks also drew a letter to the editor to the Aurora Sentinel from Republican Party strategist Tyler Sandberg, which pointed out her support of the Aurora teacher’s union and asking union members to call out Wildman’s comments.
The controversy caused the rest of the board to release a statement distancing themselves from Wildman’s comments. The statement in part read, “The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education values holding open conversations with our community. The Board is comprised of individual members who are entitled to voice their own opinions.”
After the statement was released, Wildman said that she understood why the board decided to issue it. She continued to defended her remarks as being misunderstood and called the controversy politically motivated. But, in retrospect, Wildman said she should have stuck with data on illegal immigration instead of citing the personal experience of her sister and nieces in Arizona.
Wildman, in defense of her statements in an interview with the Aurora Sentinel, cited information about crime relating to illegal immigration that she said she found on Wikipedia, which came originally from the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit that advocates for lower immigration numbers in the United States. The group has come under fire from critics including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled it an anti-immigrant hate group. Wildman said she was unaware of the group’s background when researching the topic.
Cherry Creek School District shaken by two cases of sexual assault
An announcement of a longtime Cherry Creek teacher’s arrest for multiple counts of sexual assault on minors led to the revelation that another district employee had been arrested for a separate incident of sexual assault.
Prairie Middle School teacher Brian Vasquez, 34, is currently facing multiple charges related to suspicion of sexual assault on “multiple” students after being arrested in August.
Vasquez had worked at Prairie Middle for seven years and previously worked for schools in Widefield and Harrison school districts near Colorado Springs in El Paso County. He is married and has two children, police said. They added that “previous employers” said they had no concerns about Vasquez in those positions. He also was a coach for Destination Imagination, an extracurricular program, at Prairie in the past.
“It’s a sad day at Prairie Middle School,” said Cherry Creek Schools District Superintendent Harry Bull at the time. “My greatest concern is for the students.”
After the charges against Vasquez were announced in a press conference by Aurora Police Department and CCSD, another case came to light that involved a district employee being charged with sexual assault. Broderick Jerrod Lundie, 30, a former security guard at Grandview High School was arrested May 4 in connection with charges of sexual exploitation, sexual assault and obscenities.
According to an arrest affidavit filed against Lundie, he started communicating with students via Instagram and later via text. It wasn’t clear from the affidavit how old any of the students were, but state records show Lundie is accused of sexual assault on a victim between 15 and 18 years old and on a victim 10 years younger than he is.
In a statement to parents after Lundie’s arrest came to light in August, Bull said parents at Grandview hadn’t been notified of the incident in May because police didn’t believe there were more victims and CCSD wanted to protect the identity of the victim.
“(The victim) is an individual who faced and continues to face the very real prospect of being re-victimized under the scrutiny of a full-blown media inquiry,” Bull said in the statement at the time. “Mr. Lundie had been arrested and subsequently resigned; he was no longer an employee and he was absent from the school setting. There was no further risk to other students at the school.”
According to Lundie’s arrest affidavit, however, investigators say they spoke to at least one other Grandview student who had inappropriate contact with Lundie and possibly others.
Immigrant radio broadcast from Central High School
Metro Aurora’s airwaves got a new station this year and the city’s immigrant community got a valuable voice after a 17-year journey.
When 93.9 KETO-FM launched on Sept. 11, the Ethiopian New Year, it represented almost two decades of work for Endale Getahun, an Ethiopian immigrant whose dream has been to provide immigrants from across the world who live in Aurora a voice of their own.
While the radio station is in its infancy, it’s broadcasting music and other news programs. But in the coming months, it plans to do everything from provide a platform for law enforcement officials, including the FBI and Homeland Security, to reach out to the immigrant community to broadcasting Aurora City Council meetings in 11 languages.
“We want to be the ear and mouth of the community,” Getahun said. “We want to attract other speaking communities to fill the programming. After (we attract more programming) we will use radio animation to make sure certain programming airs at certain times. And we will have a week’s worth of programming saved online as well.”
Getahun said there’s still work to do to fully realize his dream of what KETO can be including gathering more equipment to allow for things like call in shows. But after 17 years of work to make the station a reality, everything after getting the station on the air is the easy part.
“Building a capacity is much easier than getting to hear. Getting it (on the air) was the hardest part,” Getahun said. There were so many generous people that helped us.”
Part of Getahun’s journey was finding a location for the 100-foot antenna needed to broadcast the low power station. In January of 2000, the Federal Communications Commission created a low power FM radio protocol specifically to serve noncommercial educational entities such as churches, schools and nonprofits. Low power FM stations can operate at a maximum power of 100 watts, which generally provides coverage of three to five miles.
The tower is now located on the Aurora Central High School campus, a source of pride for the school district, said Debi Hunter Holen, Aurora Public School’s community engagement advocate, and someone Getahun said was also critical in the radio station getting on the air. Getahun plans to involve the students in the studio and in programming.
A WWII-Era B-25 Bomber plane and a P-47D Thunderbolt fly in formation, Sept. 13, over East Aurora as part of a demonstration for the upcoming Pikes Peak Regional Air Show which will be Sept. 23-24 at the Pikes Peak Airport. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel