State Board wants Aurora district to reconsider closing Vega charter school

One of Aurora’s highest-performing charter schools, Vega Collegiate Academy, logged a victory Thursday as the State Board of Education asked the district to reconsider its decision to close the school.

Aurora Public Schools board voted in February to close Vega at the end of the academic year, after the district determined that the charter school was not properly educating students with special needs.

But State Board members said that closing a high-performing school, such as Vega, doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of students.

“These scores are compelling,” State Board member Rebecca McClellan said. “I’m struggling with closing down a school that’s getting those kinds of results.”

In its first year, Vega students managed to earn the state’s highest math growth scores.

The State Board’s vote to remand the decision back to the Aurora school board was unanimous. The Aurora school board will have 30 days to reconsider their decision to close Vega. If they vote to reaffirm their decision, Vega would have one more opportunity to appeal; at that point, the State Board would issue its own binding order instead of just asking the district to reconsider.

Vega officials, and several of the school’s students, who attended the afternoon hearing, celebrated the decision.

“It was a nice confirmation that we weren’t the only ones thinking that this decision was harsh,” said Miguel In Suk Lovato, the vice chair for Vega’s school board. “That moment when they made their decision was so emotional for our students and families.”

Leaders of the charter school have disputed some of the district’s findings, but argue that they are taking steps to correct errors they did make.

Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member who spoke during the hearing, said that part of the problem was that the board lost trust that the school could serve students with special needs well.

The school district said Vega did not provide some students enough time with a licensed special education instructor in part because they did not have a special education instructor for part of the year. They also had argued that the school had improperly segregated students by putting those with special needs and English learners together in one class, and had enrolled two students who had been identified as needing to be placed in a center program, which Vega doesn’t have.

Vega leaders said some of these mistakes were the result of the school being new, but assured State Board members that students were going to have the education that is mandated by the end of the school year.

The district contends that Vega misrepresented its programming, and had not actually worked to rectify the problems.

“These were decisions, not errors,” Brandon Eyre, the Aurora Public Schools’ attorney, said.

The Aurora school district had also asked the State Board to consider new evidence in the form of an email in which a special education teacher seemed to claim that Vega administrators had instructed the teacher to lie about what was happening in the school.

The state did not allow the email to be considered, because the State Board is supposed to consider what the local board considered. Vega officials questioned why the district jumped to share it with media instead of investigating.

Vega officials also noted that schools around the country fail to meet the needs of special education students every day, and argued that by law the district had the authority to step in and take over educating students with special needs at any time.

State Board members asked if there was anything in terms of monitoring that would make Aurora officials feel better about letting Vega continue to operate, but officials didn’t have specific answers.

One member, Steve Durham said the district, if it reconsiders Vega’s fate, could craft a contract that lays out consequences for failing students with special needs. But he encouraged the district to call on staff from the Colorado Department of Education to provide impartial feedback on whether or not any proposed requirements for Vega would be reasonable.

Vega, which enrolls just under 200 students in kindergarten, first grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade, opened for the 2017-18 school year. The school adds two grade levels per year, and planned to serve kindergarten through eighth-grade students.