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Adams 14 loses chartering authority as Colorado State Board sides with University Prep

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.

The Adams 14 school district lost its charting authority Thursday. It is under state orders to improve academic performance.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

The Adams 14 school district lost its exclusive authority to approve or deny charter applications Thursday. Nor will the district be able to decide whether charters within its boundaries can seek authorization from the state.

The Colorado’s State Board of Education voted 5 to 4 to remove exclusive chartering authority at a hearing requested by charter network University Prep.

The charter school has argued with Adams 14 for over a year, winning two state appeals against the district. Still, Adams 14 has not approved a contract to allow the school to open an elementary charter school. 

The State Board decision opens the door for University Prep to seek state authorization and open over the district’s objections.

The conflict has hinged largely on whether the charter school would be able to open with a preschool in its first year as originally proposed.

But the disputes between the two have included Adams 14 accusing University Prep of threatening the district, the charter accusing the district of demanding it sign a loyalty agreement, and a disagreement over how much each has tried to resolve the issues. 

University Prep leaders argued Thursday that state law allowed  them to request that the district lose its exclusive chartering authority because it showed a pattern of unfair treatment of charter schools — including by not complying with State Board orders. They also said they had no other recourse outside the courts. 

Adams 14 leaders argued that the charter only made the request because they were unhappy with the outcome of their contract negotiations and dealings with the district. The district said that one case didn’t constitute a pattern, and that they had obeyed the State Board orders by trying to restart negotiations, but that they could not be forced to agree with their requests.

Some State Board members said that the law was unclear, now that two state appeals had been exhausted, and that the dispute that remained appeared to be a contract issue. They said it seemed to be an area needing new legislation. 

State Board member Lisa Escárcega said she previously worked in a district that had a clearer pattern of being anti-charter, but that it was never brought to the state’s attention. She said the Adams 14’s case didn’t seem like a pattern to her.

Escárcega voted against stripping the district’s charting authority, along with board members Karla Esser, Kathy Plomer, and Rhonda Solis, all Democrats.

Board Chair Rebecca McClellan and Angelika Schroeder, both Democrats, joined three Republicans, Steve Durham, Stephen Varela, and Debora Scheffel, to vote in favor of removing that authority.

McClellan said she was thinking of families who have already been waiting years to see this school open. 

“They are here for relief because they have no other option and time is of the essence,” McCllellan said. “I am convinced there’s a pattern. I am convinced there is an equity issue.”

Thursday’s hearing didn’t mention other charter schools applications that Adams 14 has denied. 

Two state-approved charter schools do operate in the district. When the schools recently sought district approval instead, they were also denied. 

Adams 14 is under state-mandated improvement orders. State review panels examining the state’s options in the district have recommended against charter schools, noting much of the community is against charters. 

Parents both in favor of University Prep and those against the charter’s arguments attended the hearing Thursday though public comment was not allowed.

In Colorado, school districts start off having exclusive chartering authority, meaning that any charters looking to open within their district boundaries must apply to them. Even if schools wish for state Charter School Institute approval, they have to ask the district to allow it. 

When districts lose their exclusive chartering authority, prospective charter schools can apply to either the district or the state agency, without getting prior permission. 

Three small districts have lost exclusive chartering authority, according to the state Department of Education, and of districts with more than 3,000 students, just two others have lost the authority: Poudre and Fort Morgan. 

School districts and charter schools alike watch State Board decisions on chartering authority closely. A board member for the Colorado League of Charter Schools presented the case with University Prep. Dan Schaller, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, praised the decision in a written statement.

“We believe this decision puts kids and families first in finding public school options that best [meets] their needs,” he said.

Districts can ask for their charting authority back, if they prove to the state they do not have a pattern of being unfair to charter schools. 

Joseph Salazar, an attorney for Adams 14, told the State Board that University Prep was an abusive organization. That is why the district did not want to allow University Prep to open a school under state agency approval, he said. 

He compared the situation of being forced to negotiate with an abusive outside entity to the state forcing the district about two years ago to work with their previous external manager, MGT Consulting. The district ultimately ended that contract, despite being under State Board orders to hire an outside manager.

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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