Adams 14 board selected its neighbor district to be its external manager

Agreeing with a recommendation from a community group, the Adams 14 school board in a split vote Tuesday night chose as its outside manager the neighboring Mapleton school district.

In choosing Mapleton Public Schools from among four finalists, Adams 14 disregarded caution from state officials. Community support for Mapleton was largely based on the district’s similarity in demographics, and the fact that they were a public school district and not a private group.

While state officials recognized the appeal, they voiced concerns about Mapleton’s ability to manage another district, and their academic performance, which remains below state standards.

Dissenting board member Harvest Thomas didn’t discuss his reasons, but first moved to select MGT Consulting. His motion failed. Board President Connie Quintana also voted against Mapleton because she said she agreed with the state’s concerns.

“I’m more concerned about the children, not the demographics,” Quintana said. “I want to make sure all our kids can read. If they want to worry about demographics they can go visit over there,” she said, referring to Mapleton supporters. “I’m more concerned about getting our kids ready for society out there — ready just to be able to read.”

Board members who voted in favor said they wanted to honor the community’s choice, and dismissed the performance statistics.

“Show me a district of our similar size, demographic and need that is performance,” said board member Dominick Moreno, referring to the state’s highest rating for a district. “It doesn’t exist. Yes, Mapleton has had some success, some backtrack. That is how performance goes. It is not a uniquely upward climb.”

Still, Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the Colorado Department of Education on Monday said the state has “some grave concerns” with Mapleton’s ability to manage Adams 14.

Mapleton’s four-year graduation rate is lower than the four-year rate in Adams 14, and although the district has maintained a state rating one step above Adams 14’s, Mapleton’s scores have decreased.

In November, Adams 14 became the first district ordered by the state to hand over much of its authority to an external group that will be tasked with helping improve achievement.

The State Board of Education now gets final say, and must decide whether or not to approve Mapleton as external manager.

On Monday, staff from the Colorado Department of Education presented initial findings of its review to determine the capacity of each finalist to fulfill the state’s order. That order lists specific responsibilities such as evaluating teachers and district policies.

The education department needs more time to finish its review, particularly to determine how capable each group would be in complying with the federal order from the Office for Civil Rights around educating English learners, Medler said.

But in initial findings, Medler said she was only certain that one group could fulfill the state’s orders: District Renaissance Partners. The group represented a joint application from the national consultant Empower Schools, and a local charter group run by Mike Miles, a former superintendent in the Dallas and Harrison districts.

Medler said the group had enough experience, but said the caveat was that they needed public support. Many Adams 14 community members and district leaders oppose charters schools, and even though the group’s plan didn’t include turning schools into charters, officials said they would have looked at getting charter-like autonomy for some schools.

About Mapleton and the other finalists, Medler would only say it seemed they could “possibly” comply with the state’s orders.

Her specific concerns about Mapleton were that the district itself is not high performing, and has shown a downward trend in performance.

“I think overall we would feel like there’s a potential risk of putting two districts at risk if things are not handled well,” Medler told the Adams 14 board. “They have experience in pulling their own district off the clock, but managing another district could be another issue.”

Medler said the door isn’t closed on conversations, but that the state needed more time to investigate.

District leaders from Mapleton challenged some of the statistics presented about them, and instead pointed to higher graduation rates for students who take five, six or seven years to graduate, as well as a graduation rate for English learners that is higher than the state’s rate.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for a community to unite around its schools and its children to improve outcomes for all,” said Karla Allenbach, a Mapleton assistant superintendent. “We’re confident that together we will become stronger.”

Medler said she understood the community’s desire to have a neighbor manage their district.

Leaders of the 15-member community review team on Monday presented their recommendations to the board, after having spent the day Saturday interviewing each of the four finalists. The team, including students, business owners, and parents, all living in the district, said they unanimously selected Mapleton as their first choice.

“They understand our context,” Bill Klocker, one review team member, told the board.

A poll of the general public who attended a Saturday meeting showed 57 percent choosing Mapleton as their top pick, according to district officials.

Public comment before Tuesday’s vote included many people asking the board to “respect” and “uphold” the community’s choice.

“We looked at what our community wanted,” said Holly Barber, a teacher and member of the review team. “Mapleton more than any of these other groups really understood our district.”

“They value our students as more than numbers on a paper,” she added.

Deborah Figueroa, speaking for the teachers union, also said it supported Mapleton’s selection, and disregarded the concerns raised about the neighboring district’s capacity or performance.

“Let the state board do their job if they disagree with you,” Figueroa told the board.