A dozen metro Denver district superintendents condemn Board of Education’s order to reorganize Adams 14

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Adams 14 district officials appear before the State Board of Education in April 2022. The board on May 10 voted to reorganize the district because of low performance and removed the district’s accreditation.

Thirteen metro Denver school superintendents are pushing back against a decision by the State Board of Education ordering a district north of Denver to reorganize. The June 7 letter to the board is the first salvo in what could become a heated battle over how much control local school districts have over their destinies.

The state school board’s order forcing the Adams 14 school district to begin a process of reorganizing is the first time an improvement order could result in a Colorado school district being dissolved or absorbed by surrounding districts.

“Your action demeans every student, parent, and staff member in the school district,” superintendents wrote in the letter. 

The district chiefs, including superintendents from Denver, Aurora, Cherry Creek, Littleton and 27J in Brighton, are members of the Denver Area School Superintendents Council. They wrote they were surprised and “deeply disappointed” by the state’s board’s May 24 order.

The vote was one of the most extreme options the state board could take under the state’s accountability law. Colorado relies on a system of locally controlled school boards. But state law allows the board to direct improvement plans after a school or district has had low ratings for more than five years. Adams 14 had posted nine years of low ratings on the state’s accountability clock.  

In their letter, the superintendents ask the board to rescind the order and allow Adams 14 officials to be in control of its improvement process. Some of those superintendents are supposed to be participating in drawing up a new plan for the Commerce City district.

“We believe collectively in locally elected school boards of education and their Colorado constitutional right to the local control of the instruction of their students,” the letter states.

Adams 14 leaders were hopeful that they could contract with a partial outside manager for a new improvement plan after the school board ordered just that in April. But the state board switched direction after hearing the details of Adams 14’s plan and voted 4-3 for the district to begin a process that could potentially see the tight-knit working class district dissolved, annexed or consolidated.

The superintendents also expressed support for Adams 14 Superintendent Karla Loria, who didn’t gain control of the district until February after severing ties with the old outside manager MGT Consulting. The letter noted that Loria has increased student achievement in highly impacted schools in Nevada, Texas, Colorado, California and North Carolina.

“She has the experience and skills necessary to lead the changes all of you, and all of us, know are necessary for the students and families in Adams 14,” the letter said. 

The letter also said that the order to reorganize – which could take years and involves voters in affected districts approving a plan – makes the job of turning the district around in the meantime much more difficult, “as you have moved from one Sword of Damocles to another.”

State board chair’s opinion piece ruffles feathers

The superintendents’ letter came just after the publication of an opinion editorial in The Denver Post written by State Board of Education chair Angelika Schroeder, in which she defends the board’s 4-3 decision to reorganize the district. She said the district has performed poorly for so long it is failing the children and families it is supposed to serve. She said the unprecedented step of initiating a reorganization process was a bold step, “but it was not taken lightly.”

“The district’s inability to dramatically improve left no alternative. After nearly a decade of working with the district to rectify its systemic failures, the state board ran out of options.”

 Schroeder said the outside manager hired in 2018, MGT Consulting, was just starting to have a positive effect when Adams 14 fired the firm. She said the current leadership “never seemed to give it a chance.”

The district took umbrage with the opinion piece. Joe Salazar, an attorney with the district, said the article failed to note evidence, which the district supplied months ago to the state Department of Education, “that the outside firm was engaging in some rather egregious conduct that led to what we believe as a breach of contract or concerns about fiscal management.”

He also pointed to a history of MGT’s failed partnerships with other Colorado districts and universities, which he said Schroeder failed to note.

District leaders were also dismayed that the opinion piece was published a day before Adams 14 district officials were required to present their case for an improvement plan for one of the district’s elementary schools at a quasi-judicial board hearing and vote overseen by Schroeder.

“Based on this article… are you able to operate impartially in this hearing?” district legal counsel Joe Salazar asked Schroeder at the meeting on Wednesday.

 “Yes, I am,” said Schroeder. The state board approved the plan for Central Elementary.

 Meanwhile, as Adams 14 officials work to improve the district in the upcoming year, they must also work with nearby Mapleton, 27J, and Adams 12 Five Star school districts in a reorganization effort. However, those three bordering districts all signed onto the letter resisting the board’s order.

Adams 14 officials said they appreciate the support and solidarity shown by the neighboring superintendents

 “These dedicated leaders have recognized that the actions taken toward Adams 14 have implications for every student and school system across our state, and that their voices need to be heard by state-level leaders and stakeholders now more than ever,” said the district in a statement.