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Backlit photo shows one student walking past a group of others studying in a large area with a glass wall behind and another school building in the background.

Students study in the Eagles Nest at Adams City High School Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.

Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post

Teachers union sues to block handover of Adams 14 operations to external manager

The teachers union in the long-struggling Adams 14 district filed a lawsuit this week to prevent a private, for-profit company from taking over most day-to-day operations of the district.

With the support of the statewide Colorado Education Association, Adams 14 teachers allege that an order from the State Board of Education requiring the district to hand over significant control to an external manager violates the state constitution, which grants school boards the authority to make most decisions for their districts.

The lawsuit also alleges that the local school board does not have the authority to delegate control of instruction to an external manager that is not elected by the voters of the district.

Both the State Board of Education and the Adams 14 board are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is similar to one filed by teachers in Pueblo to prevent MGT from managing a single school there. Collectively, these lawsuits represent a challenge to the current accountability regime, which places schools on a state watch list if students don’t perform well enough on standardized tests. If schools don’t improve performance, the State Board of Education can order a range of interventions.

The Adams 14 school district and Risley International Academy of Innovation in Pueblo are the first in Colorado to see control handed over to an external manager when the districts’ initial state-approved improvement plans failed to yield results. In both cases, student performance had not improved significantly over an eight-year period.

The teachers are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the external manager, Florida-based MGT, from beginning its work and to stop the school district from spending local tax dollars on the effort.

The Adams 14 board approved a four-year, $8.3 million contract with MGT on Friday that gives MGT authority over recruiting and retaining personnel, making recommendations about probationary teachers, negotiating collective bargaining agreements, and managing the district budget, among other matters.

“The unfettered authority delegated under the local board’s agreement with MGT is unprecedented in Colorado, and the dollar amounts MGT stands to receive are staggering,” union lawyers wrote in the injunction request.

“We’re worried about the privatization of public schools with a group that is for-profit, has no community ties, and can walk away at any time,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union.

In a written statement, State Board of Education Chair Angelika Schroeder said the board acted lawfully and with the best interests of students in mind.

“It is unfair to the students and their families to be caught in the middle of this disagreement between adults,” she said. “The fact is, the district needs a manager with fresh eyes and creative, proven ideas to bring about immediate improvements.”

McDowell said she agrees with state officials that children should be the top priority, but said the State Board could have made them a priority years ago by providing more resources to the district, where large numbers of students live in poverty and are learning English.

Adams 14 board member Dominick Moreno said the board ceded only the authority that it was required to under the state order and retains final control of the district budget and hiring and firing decisions.

MGT was not Moreno’s first choice, but he said he’s impressed with the team the group has put together and with its ideas for improving performance in the district. Nonetheless, he said the lawsuit could provide important clarity “because there’s only going to be more instances like this.”

“It was inevitable that a lawsuit like this would be filed because it’s the first time that the accountability law is being put into effect,” said Moreno, who also serves as a state senator. “I’ll be very curious to see what comes of this. It’s a very fine line where the accountability law stands and where the constitution and local control take over.”

MGT took over management of the Gary, Indiana, school district, in 2017, an effort that is still in progress, but it has not yet completed a whole-district turnaround. The company has many years of experience as an educational consultant, but is relatively new to the hard job of school takeovers. In addition to Risley and Adams 14, the Aurora school district selected MGT to manage improvement efforts at North Middle School.

The Adams 14 board initially selected the neighboring Mapleton district to serve as its external manager. Community groups and the teachers union strongly supported that approach as one that kept public control over the process.

When the State Board expressed skepticism of Mapleton’s ability to do the job, the local school board asked MGT, the community’s second choice, to join in. The lawsuit calls out the board for making that decision with little public notice and with all discussion behind closed doors.

The State Board later adopted a policy that other school districts should not be named as external managers.

Read the full complaint below.

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