Colorado board allows Adams 14 to retain some local control as the state pushes for external management

In its much-anticipated decision on the troubled Adams 14 school district, Colorado’s State Board of Education on Tuesday stopped short of handing over all power to an outside manager.

The external manager — yet to be chosen — will oversee district operations for at least four years and be able to place, transfer and evaluate teachers. But in hiring and  firing employees, the locally elected school board will retain the ultimate authority.

That means the external manager hired to run Adams 14 will have less power than what some outside observers expected. But the outcome was just what district officials thought would happen.

“We’re very pleased,” said Superintendent Javier Abrego. “The local board is still on top.”

After spending an hour in closed session hearing a legal opinion about its final order, the state board emerged into a public meeting and without discussion approved the order directing Adams 14 to hand over district management to an outside group. The state stepped in because the Commerce City-based district of about 7,500 students has had low performance ratings for more than eight years and has been unable to improve on its own.

At a hearing two weeks ago, the district had proposed a similar improvement plan in which they would hire an outside manager that would report to their local school board, and give direction to the superintendent. But during that hearing, State Board members were unconvinced that the district was willing to give up a significant amount of authority to that outside manager, so they sought a legal opinion.

State attorneys drafted an order allowing the State Board to specify in detail the powers of the external manager, which are similar to the powers of a superintendent. The order gives state officials oversight, requiring State Board approval of an external manager chosen by Adams 14, allowing the state to review the manager’s contract and allowing unscheduled visits to the district by state officials.

But when it comes to hiring and firing employees, even top administrators like the superintendent, the Adams 14 school board maintains ultimate authority.

“Legally that can’t be taken away from a local board,” said Alyssa Pearson, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Education.

The order specifies that if the local board rejects a recommendation of the external manager, it must submit a written explanation to the state within 14 days.

State officials will then review the documents and will determine if the local board is being “unreasonable,” Pearson said.

“It’s the first step,” said Jane Goff, the State Board member representing the Adams 14 district. “A lot more will get spelled out in the contract, we hope.”

The final order requires the State Board to vote on the district’s selected manager within 90 days. If the state board agrees with the district’s selection, then the district will have 30 more days to finalize a contract that hands over authority to the outside manager to oversee all the areas specified by the state, such as instructional programs.

State officials will review the contract to determine if it meets state requirements. If it doesn’t, the state board could pull Adams 14’s accreditation and dissolve the district.

“I think it’s good,” said Connie Quintana, Adams 14’s board president, about the board’s decision Tuesday. “We do really need help.”

Quintana said her board will “work together” with the external manager.

Adams 14 board member Dominick Moreno at a regular board meeting that evening added that the order was a unique opportunity for the district to “rapidly accelerate.”

“I hope we capitalize on that opportunity,” Moreno said and added that he hopes to involve the community along the way.

The state order asked that the contract detail the following as the external manager’s duties and powers:

  • Implementing an instructional program, including making recommendations about curriculum, tests, scheduling, and teacher training
  • Recruiting and retaining personnel including teacher and administrator placement, transfer and evaluation, and making recommendations about the non-renewal or renewal of employment contracts, action on at-will employees, on the superintendent’s contract, and on employee group negotiations.
  • Recruiting and recommending management operators for individual schools, or service providers for certain programs.
  • Recommending changes to employee union contracts
  • Evaluating district policies and recommending changes
  • Coordinating community engagement, supporting local governance training
  • Determining whether to continue provisions of the last state-ordered improvement plan including the district’s partnership with Beyond Textbooks, its current management consultant
  • Other authority that the manager needs to improve the district

Teacher leaders on Tuesday said they were nervous, but happy with the order.

The district said its search for an external manager will begin right away. The district will publish a request for proposals using details from the final order, and will use a committee to help vet the proposals that come in. The district is still working out the details about who will be on that committee, district officials said. The district is planning a community meeting on Dec. 4 to talk to the public about the search process.

The state board’s order requires that the process includes community engagement, and that it ultimately finds a group that “uses research-based strategies and has a proven track record of success.”

The state’s order also notes the selected manager must also be “qualified and willing” to comply with the district’s existing agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The office recently sent a letter to the district and to the Colorado Department of Education to remind officials that the issues the federal government had identified must still be corrected.

Among violations the government had found are that the district “failed to communicate effectively with parents who are limited in their English proficiency and that the district was responsible for the creation of a hostile environment toward Hispanic students, parents, and staff.”

Read the full order from the state, below: