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Adams 14 sues state, challenges reorganization order

Flags fly outside the Adams 14 school district headquarters. The district logo sits prominently in front of the building. The sky is a clear blue.

Last month the State Board of Education ordered Adams 14 to begin reorganization. Now the district is challenging that order.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

The Adams 14 school district, with help from the state teachers union, filed a lawsuit this week challenging both the state’s order to reorganize the troubled district and the system that allows the state to intervene in low-performing districts.

The Adams 14 school district north of Denver has experienced several firsts as one of the only districts that has consistently earned the state’s lowest performance ratings. Previous legal challenges to state intervention have been unsuccessful. 

Last month, after other state-ordered improvement plans had fallen apart, the State Board of Education ordered Adams 14 to begin a reorganization process that could result in the district being dissolved. 

In its lawsuit the district argues the state doesn’t have the authority to take away a district’s local control, which it says is what would happen if the district were dissolved. It also argues that the State Board was biased, seeking to take away the district’s authority from the beginning, and that the accountability system itself is biased because districts with more affluent students  aren’t vulnerable to the same orders as a district like Adams 14 serving lower-income families.

State accountability laws require Colorado to intervene in low-performing school districts, yet limits what the state can order districts to do. The law lists reorganization as one option, but that had never been used. 

The State Board in May ordered Adams 14 to begin reorganizing. The district has a timeline for complying, but the clock won’t begin running on creating a committee to draft a plan until the state education commissioner notifies Adams 14 and neighboring districts that it’s time to form the committee. That hasn’t happened yet.

As in a previous lawsuit, the challenge filed this week in Denver District Court heavily relies on arguments about the State Board’s procedures, including claiming that the state has failed by not creating an appeals process for districts. 

In the filing, the district wants a judge to halt and set aside the state’s order pending a judicial review. It also wants the courts to give the district more trial-like procedures that would allow the district to cross-examine witnesses and evidence given to the State Board.

In describing the damage the state has caused, the lawsuit describes large numbers of staff resigning following the state’s May order and says schools received notices from parents that students are moving to other districts

The lawsuit also notes that Moody’s credit rating agency downgraded the district’s bond rating following the May order. Moody’s announcement said the ratings change was based on “substantial enrollment loss” and governance issues. The ratings may be further downgraded, according to the agency.

That can make it more expensive for the district to borrow money and issue bonds.

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education said the state doesn’t discuss ongoing legal matters, but noted “the State Board of Education has followed their obligations to intervene in a struggling district as statute dictates.” 

In past challenges to State Board orders, the courts have dismissed the cases, but not necessarily because of the claims. 

In a 2019 case in which the teachers union challenged state orders that required Adams 14 and Pueblo 60 districts to enter into outside management agreements, a judge said the union had no standing to bring the case. In reviewing whether Colorado’s accountability law is unconstitutional because it allows the State Board to order external management, a judge wrote, “the court declines to define the scope of the State Board’s authority.”

In the filing this week, the Colorado Education Association joined as a secondary plaintiff to Adams 14. The lawsuit argues that the union has standing because its employee contracts with the school district are at risk, and because union staff are resigning. 

Earlier this year, Adams 14 filed another lawsuit trying to delay new state hearings and to change the process. A judge dismissed the case, stating that the district’s harms weren’t irreparable. 

The latest lawsuit’s 12 claims include just one on the accountability system being unconstitutional. In making that case, the lawsuit cited the Westminster school district’s complaints in 2017 that it was being targeted as a district with many low-income students. 

At the time, Westminster was also facing state action. However Westminster then managed to improve its rating and is no longer on the state’s watchlist.

Still, critics have continued to criticize the state’s rating system and the laws governing how the state should intervene, known as the accountability system, as inequitable. Legislators have asked for an audit of the accountability system, due later this year.

“Since 2017 the State Board has done absolutely nothing to stop its unconstitutional and discriminatory application of Colorado’s accountability system on districts that serve primarily students of color who are poor and are fluent in languages other than English,” the lawsuit states. 

In the other 11 claims in the lawsuit, the district targets State Board member Steve Durham, using his comments to claim that he influenced the State Review Panel in requesting recommendations that would remove Adams 14’s authority. 

The lawsuit also states that Adams 14 school board members had filed claims of racism against the State Board but that the state never investigated, and never removed Durham from decision making. 

Additionally, because Durham read a motion that had been prepared ahead of time, the lawsuit claims “the State Board entered into the hearing predisposed to vote in a particular manner — demonstrating bias (due process violation) and a possible violation of the Colorado Open Meetings law.”

Reading or using motions prepared ahead of time is a common practice for the State Board of Education. 

The district also argues that after Adams 14’s board cut ties with its previous external manager, the state’s immediate request for an external review panel to visit the district and create recommendations was “in outright retaliation.”

The district’s lawsuit also criticizes the fairness of that external panel, including because it didn’t include experts in bilingual education, and calling out one member for coming from a district where leaders had signed an agreement with the Justice Department to settle complaints of race and national origin discrimination, although Adams 14 itself has signed similar agreements.

“The State Review Panel’s visit was a sham, and was a rubber stamp mission to produce a report that would legitimize Board Member Durham’s desired outcome to ‘disempower the district,’” the lawsuit states. 

Three others on the seven-member State Board joined Durham in voting to reorganize the district.

Ordering reorganization, and requiring neighboring districts to participate, also violates the district’s local control, the lawsuit argues, because it will require them to use resources and money for the process. 

“The Colorado Constitution, as interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court, forbids the State Board from interfering with local control powers, which involves the power to decide what to do with locally-raised funds,” the lawsuit states.

Read the full lawsuit here.

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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