Few easy options as Colorado State Board weighs outside manager for troubled Adams 14

Colorado’s top education officials have already said they don’t think Florida-based MGT Consulting has the necessary experience to turn around the state’s most troubled district. This week, they’ll have to decide if they’ll approve the for-profit company anyway.

This isn’t the first time this year that Adams 14 has come before the State Board of Education seeking approval for an external manager that it must hire by July 1. The district was the first in the state ordered to hire an external manager after failing for more than eight years to improve student achievement. But the State Board rejected the district’s first choice — and then expressed skepticism of MGT, its runner-up.

The Adams 14 school board chose MGT anyway.

To strengthen the proposal, the local board asked the company to work with another consultant, but the proposal isn’t changing for now. However, MGT and district officials are pushing back against criticism and the company announced local hires, including prominent retired superintendents, who could lead districtwide changes.

Now the question is whether all of that is enough to convince at least four of the seven State Board members to allow Adams 14 to work with MGT.

If they reject the local school board’s choice for a second time, the State Board’s alternatives in a state that has a strong focus on local control are limited.

“We have very primitive tools,” said State Board President Angelika Schroeder. “There’s not much we can do.”

She said the process with Adams 14 has been complex and disappointing. The uncertainty of what exactly will change also has stretched out longer than some had hoped, so the board must weigh the urgency of starting the turnaround with the desire to get it right.

The November order that asks Adams 14 to hire an external manager specifies that if the State Board rejects MGT, the state and local board must work “cooperatively” to ensure a “prompt” selection of a manager that meets the state’s criteria.

The State Board can also take other action which includes the options originally available: closing schools, turning them into charter schools, dissolving the district, and giving schools innovation status to free them from some state or district rules.

Those options also come with their own challenges. For instance, although State Board member Steve Durham suggested he would push to turn all district schools into charters if the district didn’t select an appropriate manager, finding a charter organization that can take over in a matter of months could be difficult. Much of the community also opposes charters, and not having buy-in for a state-ordered turnaround could complicate how effective it would be.

Closing schools is a problem because some of the other schools nearby aren’t much better or don’t have space. The district only has one high school and one alternative high school, so closing one of those would essentially leave students without an in-district option.

Dissolving a school district so that it can be absorbed by neighboring districts is a complicated process under state law. Legislators this spring changed the law so that in cases like this districts no longer need local voter approval, but the law won’t kick in until August.

As far as giving Adams 14 school innovation status, state officials had recommended against that option because having more autonomy requires strong leadership and a strong plan. Adams 14 has had constant problems with turnover, including in leadership positions. Just last month, Superintendent Javier Abrego was released from the job. The district has not launched a search for a new superintendent.

Trey Traviesa, the chief executive officer of MGT said that one benefit of choosing MGT would be that the company has the ability to get to work right away. He said he expected that, if approved, MGT would begin working in the district this month.

“That really needs to happen,” Traviesa said. “We’re a little bit behind, but we’re comfortable with the timeline. It’s up to others too, but we’re ready.”

Schroeder said Thursday her concerns about MGT hadn’t gone away, but she said she was unsure of how to vote or best help the district.

In approving the MGT proposal to run the district, the Adams 14 school board approved a resolution, without discussion, that lays out why MGT is a strong candidate.

“MGT uses research-based strategies and has an impressive proven track record of success managing and working with school districts and schools across the United States, including schools in Colorado,” the resolution states. It goes on to say that the company also “affirmed that it honors local control and works to build trust and faith in the community, so it will support and be actively engaged in turnaround efforts.”

MGT has worked as a consultant to Colorado schools for years, but the company is relatively new to turnaround work as a full manager. Law didn’t require it until recently, so many companies haven’t done it yet. One of the other finalists for management of Adams 14, however, was the nonprofit Empower Schools, which did complete a turnaround in Lawrence, Massachusetts. MGT has worked with two Florida schools, is about to start working with middle schools in Pueblo and Aurora, and is managing the Gary, Indiana, district, a project that is still ongoing.

Adams 14 has asked the company to take on another partner, Schools Cubed, a third group that had proposed to run the district.

Based on an initial staff analysis by the Colorado Department of Education, Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the department, told the Adams 14 school board that only one of the district’s four finalists was likely to be able to meet the state’s criteria. That was the proposal from District Renaissance Partners, a joint application from Empower Schools and a local charter operator. That proposal was the community’s least favorite of the finalists.

In documents prepared for the meeting this week, department staff lay out new data about MGT’s previous work, but don’t draw any conclusions about the company.

School board members already fielded concerns and questions from some Commerce City city council members and the mayor at a joint meeting last week, mostly about community input, the fact that MGT is a private for-profit company, and the potential cost.

“We have orders from the State Board we have to follow,” said Connie Quintana, Adams 14 board president. “If it was our way, we probably would have did it a different way.”

Quintana urged the groups and the community to focus on the positive, and said she was sure the district could still succeed. Adams 14’s attorney, Jonathon Fero, tried to express confidence, telling city leaders it was highly unlikely the state would reject MGT as the district’s manager.