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Adams 14 school board rejects University Prep charter school contract

Students wearing coats walk in a line behind a teacher who faces them, in front of a brick school house that houses University Prep in Denver.

University Prep, which operates charter schools in Denver, planned to open an elementary school with a preschool in Adams 14.

Marc Piscotty for Chalkbeat

Nearly ten months after approving an application for a new charter school, the Adams 14 school board rejected the contract that would have allowed the school to open.

Tuesday’s 4-0 vote was taken without any discussion after several closed-door sessions and while board member Maria Zubia had stepped away from the meeting. Zubia’s name was not called during the vote.

Board president Reneé Lovato directed the district’s attorney to craft a resolution to be considered at a future meeting that would explain the board’s reasoning, which was not discussed in public. 

University Prep, which operates charter schools in Denver, had proposed opening an elementary school, designed with parents, in the Commerce City-based district. Many Spanish-speaking families want options with Spanish offerings for their children. The plans for the school would include a preschool and put students on a path to a Seal of Biliteracy.

Parents who wanted the school to open, many of whom already drive their children out of the district to attend University Prep schools in Denver, said they were confused and disappointed by Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear that word – denied – after waiting for so many months,” said parent leader Susanna Pasillas following the meeting. The school, she said, proved it “was going to go above and beyond.”

David Singer, founder and executive director for University Prep, said he would explore all next steps, including a possible appeal to the state.

School approved last year faced repeated delays

Tuesday’s vote essentially ends the proposed plans unless an appeal is successful. The district’s rejection of the contract reverses a prior approval in December when the board voted 3-2 to approve the school

The vote to deny the contract was unanimous, but included only four of the board’s five members. Of the three members who voted to approve the school in December, only one – Lovato – also voted Tuesday, reversing her prior support of the school. 

Ramona Lewis has since resigned her position on the board and instead taken a job as the board’s administrative assistant. Board member Zubia became sick during Tuesday’s meeting and had stepped away from the boardroom when the vote was taken. 

By Colorado law, once a district approves a charter school application, the district has 90 days to negotiate the language of a contract with the charter school. The 90 days can be extended if both sides agree. Districts use language in contracts to ensure oversight of charter schools, including conditions the charter schools must meet to be able to operate. 

District and University Prep leaders agreed to extend the deadline to June 28. During the spring, the district and charter school leaders, including parents who helped design the school, negotiated the contract and finished a draft with the help of a mediator.

University Prep’s own school board approved the draft contract in June, but Adams 14 didn’t put the contract on its own board agenda until this week.

Singer said he and parents had more than 20 meetings with Adams 14 leadership over the course of four months.

“To see all of those efforts fundamentally dismissed through the board’s vote last night, is deeply disappointing,” Singer said. “The lack of public transparency by the local board is highly concerning because it means none of us know what happened between getting to a quality contract and experiencing a unilateral no vote on that contract.”

Parents had pleaded with the board in previous meetings to take action on the contract to allow the school to proceed with plans to open. 

Concerns raised over preschool promises

Joe Salazar, the district’s attorney, did not want to expand on the board or district’s concerns, saying it would be made clear in a resolution, but did say that the district learned new information from University Prep in June “that changed everything.”

“Those changes did not live up to the promises to the community and to the board,” Salazar said.

Salazar said the December approval only had one condition, which was for the school to open with preschool for 3-year-olds through kindergarten in its first year. Singer said the charter is still working to open a preschool in the first year, but expects it may take longer.

At the time of the December approval, the charter school had been planning to open in fall of 2022.

Two weeks ago, the school board held a study session where Adams 14 board members questioned University Prep leaders on the plans and what they believed were changes from the approved application. Several questions were about the school’s plans for a preschool.

Singer said that the school still plans on opening a preschool, but because of the delayed timeline, doing so in the first year may not be possible. 

Part of that, he and his team told the board, is because the state licenses preschool facilities differently than other schools, including checking the facility. 

Board members also wondered why the charter network hadn’t already secured a site. 

Singer said charter schools in Colorado usually don’t sign leases for a school facility until they have a contract with the district to prove they will be allowed to open and receive the funding to pay the lease. Depending on which site University Prep is able to sign a lease with, the charter is anticipating renovations to set up a preschool. With a new state department overseeing early childhood education, charter leaders also wanted more time to account for delays or any changes to requirements. 

The draft contract voted on by University Prep included language that required the school to open the preschool by its third year at the latest or face revocation of the charter. 

After initial negotiations, Singer said, Adams 14 in June proposed more strict language that would prevent kindergarten students from moving to first grade in the second year if no preschool was opening. Eventually, Singer said, the charter agreed to the language, though the draft was not changed to reflect that.

Parents in support of the school want choices

The Adams 14 school district has not traditionally been friendly to charter schools and could face scrutiny from the State Board of Education over the denial. The district faces possible reorganization after years of low test scores, and many families have opted for schools in neighboring districts. Colorado law provides limited reasons for school districts to turn down charters, and the State Board has overturned district denials.

Currently, Adams 14 has one charter network operating two schools — Victory Preparatory Academy and Community Leadership Academy — in the district, but the schools are authorized by the state agency, Charter School Institute. In December, that charter was seeking to be authorized by Adams 14 and argued that the schools’ higher scores could help pull up the district average. But the school board rejected the proposal. 

In 2018, the Adams 14 school board also rejected an application for a KIPP charter school, another network operating in Denver that serves many families from Adams 14. That rejection wasn’t appealed. Now the district faces another charter application that it would have to vote on next month: a proposal for Be The Change Community School, a charter high school being founded by two local educators, including one who is a district parent. 

After Tuesday’s vote on the University Prep contract, parents interrupted the meeting asking for the board to give an explanation.

Lovato told them they were not allowed to address the board at that time. When the parents stepped out of the boardroom, the attorney asked permission to follow them out to ensure they didn’t leave with the district’s translation headsets. He and several other district leaders followed the crowd out.

Susanna Pasillas, who has a third grader she already drives out of Adams 14 to University Prep in Denver, and a 2-year-old she hoped would attend preschool at a University Prep in her community, said she was disappointed.

Pasillas said she first chose to take her elder daughter to University Prep because she was concerned with the teacher turnover in Adams 14 schools when her daughter was in preschool at a district school. She also felt that the school staff were not welcoming. 

At University Prep, she said she feels welcome and supported. 

Josette Lopez, a single mom of four, drives her elementary-age students to University Prep in Denver. Her children would be out of elementary school by the time the proposed Commerce City school could open, but she still helped design the school for other children in the community because she also felt University Prep was a supportive place for parents like her. 

“It’s more like my family, for me, that I’ve had along the way to help,” Lopez said. “I got to see the perspective of having direct communication with teachers. Instead of calling the office for a student, and getting transferred around, you don’t have to do that. If you have a problem, I have their direct number. The communication has been phenomenal with them.”

Lopez said she’s confused about why the Adams 14 board voted no after saying yes last year.

“I thought it was approved,” she said. “They gave us a yes already. I remember it was a very long night.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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