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State again sides with University Prep charter, tells Adams 14 to negotiate 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.

The State Board of Education granted a second appeal from University Prep against Adams 14 on Thursday.

Marc Piscotty for Chalkbeat

Once again, the Colorado State Board of Education has sided with the charter group University Prep in an appeal and against the Adams 14 school district.

The State Board voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to grant the group’s appeal and order Adams 14 to engage in “good faith negotiations with University Preparatory Schools and to complete the contract.”

However, attorneys for Adams 14 argued that the State Board cannot order a district to negotiate a contract. The district’s denial of the charter contract centers around University Prep promising to include a preschool and then saying it might not happen in the first year.

The State Board has gained several new members since December when it initially voted to order Adams 14 to reconsider allowing the school to open. But still, many of the deliberations were similar.

Board chair Rebecca McClellan said she remains confused as to why, if the district values a preschool so much, a one-year delay in opening should mean it’s no longer of value and should be eliminated as a possibility.

State Board member Angelika Schroeder said there was clear interest in the school from families, and the issues sound like adult problems. 

Two attorneys for Adams 14 argued that trust has been broken, that the district cannot be forced to sign a charter contract, and that they would not be forced to concede.

“There will not be a contract,” Joe Salazar, an attorney for Adams 14, said during the appeal hearing. “This is not an organization we want to engage with.”

State Board members then asked their own attorneys what the point of the hearing was if Adams 14 doesn’t intend to comply. State Board member Kathy Plomer said she wasn’t sure what implications her vote would have and that the issue seemed likely to head to the courts.

State attorneys still encouraged the State Board to make a decision on the appeal. 

University Prep proposed a preschool through fifth grade school to open within Adams 14, and initially had their charter application approved by the Adams 14 school board in December 2021. The school and the district agreed to extend negotiations on details longer than usual, thus delaying the opening of the school. 

In summer 2022, when University Prep believed negotiations were completed, the Adams 14 board delayed a vote then rejected the contract. 

Central to the issues the district cites is whether the school will include a preschool in its first year. Leaders of University Prep say that is still their goal, but want leeway to push back opening the preschool in case construction and state licensing delay their timeline. 

The draft charter contract stipulates that lack of a preschool by the second year could constitute a reason to close the school.

But Adams 14 attorneys said that changing the preschool timing represented a “bait and switch” and raises questions about whether the preschool would open at all. The attorneys also said the charter group broke trust when David Singer, the leader of University Prep, threatened to appeal to Steve Durham, a State Board member who has been critical of Adams 14.

Singer said in the state appeal hearings that he didn’t mean to threaten the district, that he didn’t mention Durham specifically, and that he has since apologized.

State Board member Rhonda Solis told University Prep leaders that they need to be more aware of the trauma that the Adams 14 district is dealing with, so they can be more sensitive. 

On Thursday, attorneys for both sides said there was no negotiation after the December order. 

Plomer said she was concerned that the district didn’t go through the process to try to remedy the impasse in negotiations after the December decision.

Salazar told the State Board that the Adams 14 board met to reconsider its denial of the school, but that the order didn’t require them to communicate or negotiate with University Prep. The local board approved a resolution without discussion reaffirming the denial. 

Typically, a second appeal win by a charter is binding and has resulted in other districts opening a charter school they initially wanted to block. But the majority of appeals happen earlier in the process when a district denies a charter application, not when they’re considering a final contract.

In the case of Adams 14, Salazar said after the hearing that the local board will wait to see the written state order and weigh what is being asked. 

But Salazar said he remains confident that the State Board cannot order a district to negotiate a contract. 

Singer said he wants to remain hopeful that he’ll be able to work with the district to finalize a contract that works for everyone. 

“Our goal is to find a way forward that ultimately honors the needs of kids,” he said.

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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