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State officials consider drastic options in Adams 14 school district

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

The Colorado State Board of Education is considering more serious intervention in the Adams 14 school district.

Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post

The Colorado State Board of Education is considering its most drastic available option – dissolving and reorganizing the Adams 14 school district — to deal with years of underperformance and turmoil in the low-achieving district.

Board members raised the possibility during a meeting Friday to rule on requests from the district to move forward with firing the external manager imposed by the State Board four years ago and choosing a different company that would report directly to Superintendent Karla Loria.

Colorado’s current accountability system has always allowed a school district to be dissolved if leaders could not turn around persistent low test scores, but it’s never happened. 

In 2018, when Adams 14 faced state intervention, a review panel recommended against dissolution and reorganization, citing a need for clear direction and oversight which would be lacking without good leadership. 

The State Board did not attempt to stop the district from ending its contract with MGT Consulting, the for-profit company that has overseen day-to-day operations in the district, but the State Board voted down the district’s proposal to look for a new external manager that would report to the district superintendent.

Instead, the State Board will hold a hearing in April to reconsider all options for intervening in the district which has been among the lowest performing in the state since at least 2010. The board, in particular, wants feedback from the community regarding the option to dissolve and reorganize the district.

It’s the most drastic of the limited options available to the State Board of Education, and there are some open questions as to how it might be done.

Joe Salazar, an attorney for Adams 14, said the district will fight any state attempts to dissolve the district.

“We think the State Board of Education has gone well beyond their skis,” he said. “For them to telegraph they’re going to engage the community about this is pretty sickening and just inappropriate all together. They’re going to find out what Adams 14 is all about.”

In the meantime, state officials are waiting for more information about the status of the district and its capacity to work well and take orders from another external management company. 

A panel of education experts will be convened to visit the district and make recommendations as to what might lead to better student outcomes. In 2018, when the State Board ordered that Adams 14 become the first district to hand over management to an outside company, the board was following recommendations from a state review panel that found a lack of high-quality, stable leadership in the district.

On Friday, State Board members said they regretted that the district seemed to be falling into a continuous pattern of turnover in leadership and strategy. They’ve expressed concerns the district won’t be able to work productively with any external manager.

Based in Commerce City, the 6,100-student Adams 14 district serves a largely working-class Hispanic community. Officials there praised MGT’s work during the first two years consultants ran the district, despite some disagreements, such as MGT pushing the district to return to in-person learning more quickly.

But after the district hired Loria last summer as its first superintendent since state intervention, she quickly raised concerns — and board members changed their view of MGT. Loria at one point blocked MGT employees from district buildings. The district briefly lost its accreditation, but it was restored after the two sides pledged to work together.

For its part, MGT has defended its work in the district, as well as its financial stewardship, and questioned whether Adams 14 can unilaterally end the relationship. Company officials have accused the district of conducting one-sided investigations and even pressuring employees to lie to make MGT look bad.

Salazar said the State Board is not respecting the local board’s authority. He even challenged the legality of the 2018 orders that stripped the superintendent’s power and said he would fight efforts to do that again. 

“This State Board of Education, acting like they’re above the fray, why does it seem like they’re advocating for MGT?” Salazar said at a press conference Friday afternoon.

He and local board members said they’ve uncovered legal, ethical, financial, and academic issues with MGT and that the company has not completed many projects in the last two years.  Though most details of Adams 14’s allegations have never been made public, Salazar said he has shared many documents with the state and said they have been ignored.

“We are also disappointed in the State Board comments as they cherry-picked information for the purpose of gossip mongering,” Adams 14 board President Ramona Lewis said. “We are more committed than ever.”

In a written statement, MGT officials said the allegations were a pretext to oust the company and that the district had failed to produce evidence.

Some State Board members questioned whether there was good cause to terminate the contract with MGT. Adams 14 based its decision in part on a fiscal audit it completed months ago but has withheld from the public and from state officials

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said the state doesn’t have all the information it needs to fully understand the situation or determine who’s right. An attorney for the State Board of Education told members that arbitrating the decision to fire MGT might not even be important. In any case, the State Board must decide whether to amend its orders from 2018 directing Adams 14 to be under external management. 

The Adams 14 school board’s vote earlier this month to end the contract with MGT lists April 11 as the final date for the partnership. Salazar said the district is trying to usher MGT out sooner.

Board member Steve Durham asked Anthes to offer support to the district to ensure a smooth separation and to provide money if necessary to continue some services that MGT has been providing.

But first, State Board members had to vote on a district request to remove Durham from the proceedings. Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, has called for the state to play a larger role in school turnaround, including converting more struggling schools into charter schools. Adams 14 officials cited negative comments he’s made about Adams 14 and the local board, saying that made him too biased to vote on their request for a new state order. 

The State Board, without Durham, who recused himself, unanimously voted to reject that request. Board members, including Democrats, said the request was offensive and that all members use evidence presented to them to make determinations. 

Even before Friday’s hearing, the state was considering possible intervention for Central Elementary, one of Adams 14’s lowest performing schools. The school had previously been part of MGT’s districtwide improvement plan. A hearing for Central has been pushed back until at least March.  

“Bottom line for me — as the commissioner — is that I want the students of Adams 14 to have the education and schooling they deserve,” Anthes said in a written statement. “The community is tight knit, proud, and deserving of a world-class education system. These amazing students and their families deserve a rigorous, holistic, and caring education.

“And I’m not going to give up trying to get that for them. I don’t think this State Board is either. But something different needs to be done.”

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