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State tells Adams 14 to negotiate with University Prep to open charter school

A teacher sits in front of students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver as they sit on a colorful carpet.

File photo shows University Prep, which operates schools in Denver and wants to open a new elementary school in Adams 14.

Eric Gorski / Chalkbeat

The Colorado State Board of Education overturned an Adams 14 decision to deny the opening of a University Prep charter elementary.

The State Board vote Wednesday was unanimous and requires the district to resume negotiations with University Prep to finalize a contract.

An attorney for Adams 14 had first argued that the State Board didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the appeal because it was a matter of contract negotiations, not a denial of a charter. The State Board unanimously dismissed that idea, after their own attorney said that the board has heard cases like this before.

Last December Adams 14 initially approved a charter proposal from University Prep, a charter operator with two schools in Denver. The proposed school in Commerce City would be an elementary school that would include free, full-day preschool. The school also would offer programming in Spanish to put students on a path to earn a Seal of Biliteracy.

After months of negotiations that reached what Mario Marquez, the district’s chief business officer, described as a high-quality contract, Adams 14’s school board rejected the contract without discussion. A resolution adopted later outlined several concerns, including that the preschool might not open in the first year of operations.

Adams 14 attorney Jon Fero argued to the State Board Wednesday that the district had lost confidence that University Prep was going to open a preschool or meet other promises to the district, that the charter leaders threatened to go to the State Board, and that the board felt that the charter breaking its promises was enough of a basis for rejecting the contract. 

State Board members said they failed to grasp why a possible delay in opening the preschool posed a problem, particularly if district leaders themselves said it was a need for the community.

“It’s better to have it at some point than not at all,” State Board member Rebecca McClellan said. 

State Board member Karla Esser said she was also concerned the school board had no public discussions about their thoughts on the contract to give an indication of its concerns. 

Fero said the board resolutions are how the board speaks as a whole. 

University Prep argued that the district imposed unreasonable expectations on them at the last minute. Charter leaders said they always were committed to opening a preschool and had suggested language in the contract to establish consequences if the charter didn’t follow through. 

Charter leaders worried that they might not secure licensing for the preschool in time because first they needed a signed charter contract to lease a building, and then might need to remodel to meet licensing requirements. 

State Board President Angelika Schroeder asked how it was possible that the Adams 14 board couldn’t understand that current labor and supply shortages put many projects behind schedule.

One of the charter’s proposed solutions was to include language that would end the charter contract in year two if the preschool hadn’t opened by then. 

“We were prepared to face revocation,” said an attorney for University Prep. “There is no more serious commitment a school is capable of making than that it would have closed.”

But Fero questioned whether the district would really have been able to close the school if it failed to meet the contract requirements. Marquez, who led the district’s negotiations with University Prep, said taking up the school’s offer would not have benefited the district.

“It adds no value whatsoever to a district to punish U-Prep for not being able to open pre-K,” Marquez said. “That brings nothing to us. What brings something to us is to have that pre-K in year one as promised, which is what the community was expecting.”

State Board members described the issue as an adult problem and one of timing. 

Schroeder also told Adams 14 leaders that she believed they could get past the trust issues.

“The animosity or perhaps lack of trust or whatever else you had when you came before us disappears when you focus your commitment on the kids in your district,” Schroeder said. “For that reason you will support whatever work is necessary.” 

The State Board will draft an official order with more detail next. If the charter and the district are still unable to reach a final contract, the case can come back to the State Board of Education.

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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