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State board sides with charter on expansion

Parents of 44 prospective kindergarteners and first graders at a suburban Pueblo charter school got some good news Thursday when the State Board of Education sided with the school in a dispute with its district over expansion.

Colorado Department of Education

Colorado Department of Education

The board voted 5-0 to grant an appeal by the Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo West, which had been denied permission by the Pueblo District 70 school board to add kindergarten and first-grade classes of 22 students each next school year.

Swallows director Cindy Compton said the 263-student K-12 school has a long waiting list and that students already are signed up for the two additional classes. School starts Aug. 9.

So far this year, the state board has ruled for schools in three charter appeals but sided with authorizers in two other cases. When the board rules in favor of a school, the issue typically is sent back to the local board for reconsideration. That’s what is being done in the Swallows case. A local board can stick with its original position, in which case a second appeal can be filed.

Swallows has been operating since 1996 and is authorized to have 22 students each in grades K-5 but 44 students each in grades 6-12. The school added a high school in 2008.

The school uses the Core Knowledge curriculum and wants to increase the number of students in elementary grades so it eventually can fill slots in the upper grades with students who are familiar with that program. According to documents filed in the appeal, the large percentage of non-Core knowledge students who now transfer into the middle school grades require additional help to catch up. The school has plans to ask for doubling of 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th-grade enrollments in the future.

Swallows asked for the expansion last spring, but the District 70 board rejected the request because of concerns about declining student achievement.

Because of that, district lawyer Charley Trechter said Pueblo 70 doesn’t think it’s the right time to expand the school: “This is more a question of when, not whether.”

Swallows lawyer Dustin Sparks disputed the district’s concerns about student achievement, saying, “The results do not show a failing school.”

State law makes the “best interests” of pupils the primary factor for the board to consider in charter appeals. During discussion, members indicated they didn’t see a threat to Swallows students.

“This is not a perfect situation on both sides, but I have not heard that there is immediate harm to kids,” said Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat.

Also voting for Swallows were Chair Bob Schaffer and Vice-chair Marcia Neal, both Republicans, and Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman and Jane Goff. Paul Lundeen recused himself from the vote because of a family connection to Sparks’ law firm, and Debora Scheffel wasn’t present for the full hearing so she didn’t vote. Both are Republicans.

Board plays key role in charter disputes

The charter school appeals process is a feature of Colorado law that gives the state board quasi-judicial powers, as reflected in the fact that lawyers represent both sides of an appeal and that legal briefs and supporting documents have to be filed, just as in a court case.

The process also gives the board a say over the future of individual schools that it doesn’t have with traditional schools, and it gives a glimpse into the disputes that some districts have with their charters.

Board action on charter appeals in the last two years has varied depending on individual cases, with charters winning four appeals but districts prevailing in five cases. In one appeal, a tie SBE vote had the effect of denying the appeal. Here’s a recap:

  • March 2012 – The board voted 4-3 to uphold the Denver school board’s 2011 decision to not renew the charter of Life Skills High School.
  • February 2012 – The board voted 4-3 to require the DPS board reconsider a prior order that the Northwest Academy Charter School stop offering kindergarten and 6th grade. Members voted 6-1 to also remand the DPS board’s rejection of a charter application by the Monarch Montessori of Denver Charter School.
  • January 2012 – The board 5-1 upheld the decision of the state Charter School Institute board to reject an application from Great Books Early College, an out-of-state online program.
  • December 2011 – The board deadlocked 3-3 in an appeal involving the Falcon School District and the Imagine Pioneer Charter Academy, which wanted a charter for another school. The legal effect of the tie was to deny the appeal. Lundeen recused himself because of a family connection to a lawyer in the firm representing Pioneer.
  • March 2011 – The board voted 6-1 to uphold the St. Vrain school board’s denial of a charter for the Lotus School for Excellence at Longmont.
  • January 2011 – The board unanimously rejected an appeal by Janus International Academy, whose charter application had been denied by the DPS board.
  • September 2010 – The board voted 4-3 to deny a request by the Community Leadership Academy in Commerce City, which wanted revocation of the Adams 14 district’s exclusive chartering authority so that the school could affiliate with CSI.
  • August 2010 – The board unanimously overturned five of six contract conditions the Adams 12-Five Star district wanted to impose on the Prospect Ridge Academy.