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Claiming students are already harmed, Adams 14 seeks to block reorganization

High school students walk through a wide and dark hallway at Adams City High School. There’s a window behind them that illuminates the floors.

Adams 14 is seeking to an injunction to stop the state’s orders for reorganization.

Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post

State efforts to reorganize the Adams 14 school district after years of low performance have already hurt students, including causing the district to lose out on contracts with international teachers who could have served the community’s many Spanish-speaking students. 

That’s one argument attorneys for the Adams 14 school district made in a two-day court hearing in Denver last week as they seek to block Colorado’s first major intervention into a low-performing school district. 

Attorneys representing the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education countered that what’s really hurting students is more than a decade of poor education in the school district serving parts of Commerce City. Students will suffer more if state intervention is further delayed, they said. 

“The children of Adams 14 have been waiting for the turnaround work to start in earnest for far too long,” a state attorney said. “Every week makes a difference.”

But the judge interrupted the state attorney’s argument to question if the public interest would actually be harmed by proceeding with reorganization while a lawsuit is pending.

“There’s just a lot of ifs. Talk about uncertainty to children and the community,” said Denver District Judge Shelley I. Gilman. “How does that affect the child? Isn’t there something that makes sense about waiting until the court resolves these issues before taking actions that can’t later be reversed?”

Gilman has two months to decide if a state reorganization order should proceed or if she’ll grant Adams 14’s request to block the order while the lawsuit plays out. 

Adams 14 is challenging both the state reorganization order, which could lead to school closures or the loss of control to neighboring districts, and the entire state accountability system that allows this type of intervention. The state wants the lawsuit dismissed.

The State Board of Education removed Adams 14’s accreditation and ordered that the district be reorganized in May. The district was previously under external management after more than eight years of persistently low test scores. But before the external manager completed the four years it was supposed to oversee Adams 14, the local school board voted to fire the external manager after a new superintendent Karla Loria raised questions about mismanagement. 

State Education Commissioner Katy Anthes hasn’t formally started the reorganization process, saying in testimony that she was waiting for the outcome of these legal motions. Adams 14 students returned to class on Aug. 9.

Joe Salazar, the attorney for Adams 14, described seven ways he claims the district and the larger community are already being harmed by the State Board’s order. 

Students and staff have left the district out of fear that schools will shut down. The district’s bond rating has been lowered twice since the order, meaning future bond requests may end up costing the district a lot more in higher interest payments. Leaders of Adams 14 and neighboring districts have spent hours discussing the state’s orders, reassuring families, and thinking about how to prepare for all the potential impacts. 

The state pointed out that the district has dealt with declining enrollment and high staff turnover for several years. Current debt payments are fixed and not at risk of costing more, the state also argued.

Loria, the superintendent, described how the district is missing at least 16 bilingual teachers it expected to hire for this school year. The district had signed a contract in the spring with a company called IAG that would find teachers from other countries and take care of the paperwork and visas necessary for the teachers to legally work in the U.S.. 

But the sponsor the company had secured for the teacher’s visas backed out after learning that Adams 14 had lost its accreditation. Commissioner Anthes helped the district when it was attempting to reassure a new sponsor that Adams 14 is still able to educate students in Colorado, despite its loss of accreditation.

Loria testified that Anthes apologized for the ordeal as she tried to help, and said Anthes described it as an “unintended consequence.”

Two weeks into the start of the school year, an estimated 400 students who would have been taught by the international teachers have substitute teachers, and it’s unclear if the bilingual teachers will eventually come.

Loria also testified that one of the potential sponsors was willing to continue to help the teachers if they worked at only one of the district’s schools. But those stipulations essentially remove the district’s local control to decide where teachers are needed, Loria said.

The state’s attorneys tried to argue that the fact that the second sponsor was willing to place teachers at one school meant that the criteria was not about the loss of accreditation, since that affected all the district’s schools in the same way. The judge questioned that argument, since the court didn’t hear testimony about the sponsor’s reasoning for its decision. The judge also pointed out that the problem may be more than just a delay.

“There was a willingness before. Now it hasn’t happened,” Judge Gilman said. “I’m not sure it’s just a delay. There’s no certainty. Folks are making phone calls and sending letters and trying their best, but there’s no assurance.”

In another case of a possible unexpected harm from the loss of accreditation, the district called as a witness La Crea Dixon, an alumna and district paraprofessional who enrolled this summer at Colorado Christian University, planning to study to become a special education teacher. 

Dixon planned to pay with a TEACH grant, funded by the federal government. But after weeks of getting the runaround, she said an administrator at the university told her the grant had been denied because Adams 14 was not an accredited school district. 

The state attorneys said they believe there is some confusion as to where that information came from, since they are not aware of any rules that would require the district to be accredited.

When questioned, Anthes said she is still looking at the implications of the State Board order and hasn’t decided if she will kick off the reorganization process if the judge doesn’t pause the order. But she also said she does not have the authority to reverse the State Board’s orders.

Reorganization will require Adams 14 and neighboring districts to appoint a committee tasked with coming up with a plan for reimagining district boundaries. Anthes also said in court that the group could decide it’s best to keep everything the same. 

State attorneys said that if the court allows the state’s orders to move forward, it’s still unlikely the group would finalize any changes before the lawsuit is resolved. 

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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