State Board picks new leaders, backs charter in appeals cases

The State Board of Education Wednesday picked new, bipartisan leadership and then dove into two contentious charter school appeals, siding with the charter in both cases.

Republican Marcia Neal of Grand Junction, who’s been vice chair of the seven-member board, was unanimously selected as chair. Neal, a retired social studies teacher and school board member, was elected to a second, six-year term in November.

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder was elected the new vice chair on a 4-3 vote secret-ballot vote. She came out ahead of Republican Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, who was appointed to the board after GOP chair Paul Lundeen of Monument was elected to the state House and had to resign from the board. Durham is a veteran lobbyist and former legislator.

The board has a 4-3 Republican majority. Member differences, when they crop up, tend to be more philosophical than strictly partisan. Neal has periodically been a swing vote on some major issues.

Much of the board’s day was consumed with two appeals filed by TriCity Academy against the Sheridan and Englewood school boards.

The yet-to-open school last year applied for charters from both districts but was rejected by both boards. In such cases state law allows schools to appeal to the State Board, which has the option of either upholding a district’s decision or of sending the issue back to the local board for further negotiations with an applicant.

The SBE sent the applications back to the boards for further talks. The vote was 4-3 in the Sheridan case and 5-2 on the Englewood appeal. A board subcommittee will draft specific issues for the boards to address.

The applications have been contentious in both districts, particularly over the questions of whether the proposed school has any significant community support in either district, the completeness of TriCity’s applications, the rigor of its academic plan, the soundness of its finances, the appropriateness of its Core Knowledge curriculum for at-risk students and its relationship with Delta Schools Inc., the charter “incubator” that has been advising TriCity. Delta also was a party in the appeals.

The school’s goal – as indicated by its name – is to serve students in three neighboring Arapahoe County towns, Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan. Each town has a separate school district, a complicating factor when a charter school is involved. TriCity also applied to Littleton for a charter last year but later withdrew the application. The school plans to use the Core Knowledge curriculum with a blended learning emphasis and initially serve grades K-5, later expanding to grade 8. It doesn’t yet have a principal, staff or building.

While the State Board’s decision was a victory for the school, TriCity faces a long and uncertain road before the school can open. Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl, who advises the board on legal issues, outlined the possible scenarios:

  • Both boards could deny TriCity’s application a second time, likely bringing the issue back to the State Board.
  • One district could accept the other application while the second rejects it, presumably leading TriCity to affiliate with the accepting district.
  • Both districts could approve the application, “At which point in time the charter school would have to choose between the two,” Dyl said.

TriCity lawyer Dustin Sparks told Chalkbeat Colorado that the school ultimately would have to choose one district as its authorizer. He said the school made multiple applications so that it would have approval from both districts in case the school building is located in one district but authorized by the other district. (There are existing cases of charters be located in one district but authorized by another.)

Englewood Supterintendent Brian Ewart makes his case to the State Board.

Charter school appeals are a highly prescribed, formalized process involving lawyers, reams of paperwork and strict time limits on each sides’ presentations. The appeals were considered separately, one in the morning and one after lunch.

That format lends itself to “he said/she said” exchanges between the parties as they try to make their cases and field board member questions.

For instance, Sparks said experts Sheridan hired to review the application had “minuscule” expertise about charters, while district Superintendent Michael Clough later said, “There were so many problems with this application. … It became pretty apparent early on that the application was not written for or with Sheridan in mind.”

Sparks also criticized Englewood’s review process and made a point of noting the district never has granted a charter application. Superintendent Brian Ewert responded, “The board of education carefully evaluated the application using a fair and objective process.” He called TriCity’s application “inadequate” and financially shaky.”

District representatives also said they weren’t given enough information about the school’s relationship with Delta, a new company. Denise Mund, a former CDE staffer who know works for Delta, said the company so far has contributed its services to the school.

Ewert pointed out that the application said Delta would be paid $135,000 in the school’s first year and $400,000 after five years.

The board’s four Republicans – Neal, Durham, Pam Mazanec and Deb Scheffel – supported TriCity in the Sheridan appeal while Democrats Schroeder, Jane Goff and Valentina Flores (new to the board) – sided with the district.

Schroeder changed her vote on the Englewood appeal because that district is the most likely location for the school building. But she wasn’t optimistic about the school’s prospects.

“I’m not confident that you’re ready. … It was a poor application. I’m not sure they [the districts] won’t come back and say you’re not ready for prime time. Good luck.”

With new leaders and two new members, the board meeting didn’t run as smoothly as normal, including a spilled cup of water on the board table. “It was my beginning day, and I was a bit shaky,” Neal said at meeting’s end.