State Board demands answers in Adams 14 rift with outside manager

Students walk through the hall at Adams City High School Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Commerce City.
Adams City High School and the Adams 14 school district are under state orders to improve. (Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post)

A company brought in to manage the struggling Adams 14 school district under state order says its employees have been blocked from schools and prevented from doing their work for more than two weeks, prompting the Colorado State Board of Education to demand answers.  

While the outside operator pointed to a track record of improvement, a consultant hired by the new superintendent of the suburban Denver school district called the partnership “totally ineffective” and recommended it end.

Members of the State Board of Education have demanded district officials explain why they stopped working with the company without coming to the State Board to raise concerns, as required under the order. On Friday, the State Board ordered Adams 14 officials to appear at a hearing Sept. 10 to explain whether the school board authorized a stop-work order, whether the school district had exercised authority it was required to delegate to the external manager, and how the district intends to come into compliance. 

The conflict represents a test of local control and Colorado’s school accountability system, which doesn’t allow for state takeovers but does allow the State Board to strip school districts of accreditation, reorganize them, and convert schools to charters. If the State Board feels that Adams 14 is out of compliance with its improvement order, it could revive any of those options.

In 2018, Adams 14 became the first school district in Colorado to be ordered to turn most day-to-day operations over to an outside manager. Adams 14 serves a large population of English language learners and students living in poverty in the working class Denver suburb of Commerce City and has struggled for years with low test scores. A federal investigation concluded in 2014 found patterns of discrimination against Hispanic students. 

Adams 14 selected Florida-based MGT to serve as its outside manager, and the company formed a local subsidiary, Adams 14 Schools Succeed, to run the district. This summer, halfway through an $8.3 million, four-year contract with the for-profit company, Adams 14 hired its own superintendent, Karla Loria, as part of a gradual transition back to district management. 

On Tuesday, Lisa Medler, executive director of accountability and continuous improvement for the Colorado Department of Education, told the school board that Adams 14 is out of compliance with the state order because MGT has not had a consistent presence in the district. She also raised concerns about stagnant test scores and the district not doing enough to improve literacy.

On Thursday, the Adams 14 school board heard from Stuart Berger of Burns/Van Fleet Educational Consulting, a firm that Loria had recommended perform an independent evaluation of MGT’s work. A written report filed by Berger called out a number of concerns with MGT’s performance but recommended that the relationship continue as long as it would be productive, though he also recommended the contract be renegotiated. 

The company “is intimately involved not only with the operations of [Adams 14], but also in the daily lives of various administrators. Ending this relationship now would result in chaos in a district that has already had its share,” he wrote.

But in his presentation to the board, Berger reached a different conclusion.

“My strong recommendation to the board of education is that you end this partnership,” he said, describing the arrangement as problematic from the beginning.

Berger could not be reached to discuss why he shifted his recommendation. In his presentation to the board, he said some staff members who had initially been afraid to be candid with him later changed their minds.

“It then became clear to me that [Adams 14 Schools Succeed] had not performed in any meaningful way,” he told the board. “I’m not questioning the integrity or experience of the people. The people had no experience in being a turnaround. There is nothing to believe that anyone, except some of the coaches who had been in the Denver public schools, knew anything about urban education nor turning around a school district.”

Berger said MGT added too many unnecessary staff positions and didn’t do enough to change a culture of low expectations for students and staff. 

Berger also questioned additional funds that MGT had sought for providing extra services during the pandemic and recommended a forensic audit to determine if MGT had provided all the services it was contracted to provide. A spokesman for MGT said the company welcomes any outside investigation and believes its record will withstand scrutiny.

 The recommendation seemed to catch Adams 14 school board members by surprise. They said they had always had a good working relationship with MGT.

“It was our hope that our superintendent and MGT or A14SS would work together to lead us into the next two years of this contract and that we are successful in following the state order and bring our district out of turnaround,” board president Ramona Lewis said. 

“It is very disheartening. We’ve worked with them in good faith and we’ve accepted every recommendation that they’ve made. We need to do some further thinking on what this report has brought to light.”

The school board did not take any action Thursday and is scheduled to meet again Tuesday.

Reached by phone Friday, Lewis referred questions to a district spokesperson. The spokesperson said Loria was not available for an interview and referred questions back to the consultant’s written report. The spokesperson did not answer a question about how the consultant was selected.

In an 18-page letter to Lewis, Eric Parish, executive vice president of MGT Consulting, pointed to improvements in graduation and dropout rates, the expansion of career and technical education programs, the opening of a new elementary school, and improved staff culture, among other accomplishments. In particular, the letter noted the federal Office for Civil Rights had signed off on a plan for educating English language learners that resolves the old complaint, which had languished.

“Our partnership has yielded much progress,” Parish wrote. “Four years ago, Adams 14 was in the news for all of the wrong reasons. … Since we started our partnership in 2019, it’s been a different story, despite the enormous complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

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