Commerce City school board chooses Arizona educator to lead struggling district

COMMERCE CITY — A retired schools superintendent from Arizona has been selected to lead the Adams 14 School District, one of a handful of Colorado districts expected to face sanctions next year for chronic low performance on state tests.

The school board here appointed Javier Abrego on a unanimous vote Wednesday night. He replaces Pat Sanchez, who left the district this spring to lead a smaller school district in the Bay Area.

“I’m pretty sure we choose the right person,” said David Rolla, the school board’s president. “I think we’ll be in good hands.”

Abrego was one of two finalists the board interviewed. The other was longtime Colorado superintendent Mark Payler.

The board debated the hire for nearly two hours in a closed session. Rolla said the decision was close.

Abrego joins the 7,000-student district at a critical juncture. Adams 14 has run out of time to improve student learning and will likely face sanctions from the State Board of Education in early 2017. The board will recommend actions ranging from school closures to charter school takeovers to outsourcing some district operations to a third party.

The district can say yes, no or negotiate. If the parties don’t agree, the district will lose its accreditation with the state, putting federal funding at risk and potentially devaluing high school diplomas.

Another option is turning to the state’s innovation schools law. That would allow district-run schools many of the same freedoms as charter schools. They would be able to choose their own curriculum, change the school calendar to expand learning time, and hire, train and fire teachers outside of the district’s teachers contract.

Sanchez’s administration laid the foundation for all 10 of the district’s schools to seek innovation status. That work is ongoing and the schools’ plans — which would spell out how they want to change — are expected to be released in the early fall.

It’s unclear whether the work being done will be enough to appease the state.

“He’s going to have to do his homework when he gets here,” Rolla said. “We’re going for innovation. And hopefully he’ll be able to point our schools in the right direction.”

Abrego is expected to begin Aug. 1. His salary has not be set. Sanchez’s last annual salary was $175,000.

For more about the new superintendent and the challenges he faces — including a possible school board recall — read this story.