Adams 14 school board moves to sever ties with management company

Students study in the Eagles Nest at Adams City High School Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
Adams 14, which has been under external management for two years, may sever ties with its management company. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

The Adams 14 school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to begin cutting ties with an outside management company that has overseen the district’s day-to-day operations for the last two years, a symbolic step that goes against state orders and could open the district to more outside intervention.

The move comes just two months after the district hired Superintendent Karla Loria, who touted herself as a turnaround expert with a positive track record, and follows a critical evaluation of the company by a third party who said the company had created unnecessary positions, left too much work up to district employees, and hadn’t done enough to create a culture of high expectations for students and staff.

Dissolving the contract, which would require approval from the state, sets up yet another year of changes for the Commerce City-based school district that has struggled with leadership changes and turnover for years. 

Officials for MGT Consulting, the management company that has been running Adams 14 since 2019, say they have been out of the district since Aug. 4, when MGT was issued an order to pause their work. Company representatives were invited to but did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Officials from the Colorado Department of Education had already warned the Adams 14 school board last week that not having company presence in the district put Adams 14 out of compliance with the State Board’s order requiring that it hand over management to an external company. Last week, Loria said the district was back in compliance, but MGT officials said they have not been able to return to the district.

On Tuesday, school board members, many of whom got emotional as they spoke, said they were disappointed to learn about the information in the report from the outside evaluator. 

“It’s just too much. To me, it’s just disappointing,” said board member Maria Zubia. “Because I expected more.”

The board’s vote Tuesday directs Loria to respond to the state by explaining the district’s attempts to resolve the dispute with MGT and presenting what the district considers to be the company’s performance deficiencies. The vote also directs Loria to “explore appropriate amendments” to the State Board order.

Board members also said they were committed to hiring a firm to conduct a financial audit to review the more than $7 million spent on the contract to date.

The outside evaluation was commissioned by the district after Loria recommended it ahead of her first day on the job. Burns/Van Fleet LLC was hired for $16,500.

Despite initially writing a draft report that said MGT’s work should continue, consultant Stuart Berger later changed his recommendation and told the board that he believed the district should cut ties with the company. 

The reversal came after Berger heard from people who hadn’t been comfortable speaking initially and after he read a letter from the district’s attorney that outlined concerns that MGT was not delivering on the work it was supposed to do because it delegated too much to Adams 14 employees.

“I pretty much agreed with 90% of what he had written,” Berger said.

MGT responded to that letter disputing most everything. It has requested to engage in mediation with the district, but Adams 14 attorney Jonathan Fero told the board Tuesday that they were not required to engage in mediation.

“Regrettably, because of recent events, the Adams 14 Board of Education and MGT personnel are struggling to engage in a constructive, and productive, dialogue to address any issues and concerns,” Eric Parish, executive vice president for MGT, wrote in a letter to the school board president.

MGT officials said that they did not expect the evaluation.

According to the contract for the consultant, Berger was hired because of the district’s need for a “skilled external transition consultant” to “make recommendations to inform planning for the incorporation of the new superintendent,” and for planning the scope of what work MGT would do in years three and four of the contract. Berger’s proposal is titled “Proposal for a Transition Report.”

In the report, Berger states that after beginning the work, he realized a traditional transition report would be ineffective and instead needed to include an evaluation of the partnership. 

Berger said he also completed and submitted the transition report to the district.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Berger said the state carries blame as well for not closely monitoring the failures of the external manager.

In 2018, the State Board required external management for Adams 14 out of several options under state law for when a school or district fails to improve student performance more than five years in a row. The other options, which may once again be on the table, include turning schools into charter schools, stripping the district of accreditation, or merging the district with another nearby district. 

The state can also put schools or districts on an innovation plan that allows the district or school to opt out of laws or policies to be able to change practices more creatively. Adams 14 tried that before the state ordered external management and it didn’t work, in part because of leadership changes that caused the state board to lose trust in the district’s ability to turn itself around.

MGT Consulting wasn’t Adams 14’s first choice of managers, but it was the one that received reluctant approval from both the local district leaders and the State Board of Education. 

MGT hired local superintendents to form a team to oversee the work in the district. Initially the district signed an $8.4 million contract to run for four years, per orders from the State Board. 

But when the pandemic began, MGT leaders told the Adams 14 school board that they wanted to use some of the district’s relief funds to increase the MGT contract to add new positions and help district administrators navigate the emergency closure of schools and set up remote learning.

This school year, MGT’s third of the four-year contract, was to cost the district $1,390,000. Each year was set up to cost less than the previous year.

Loria has suggested that for the more than $7 million paid to the company to date, the outcomes may not be substantial enough. 

The vote Tuesday put the district school board on the spot. Four of the five members were elected or appointed recently and had not been involved in selecting MGT or in the district failures that led to the state order. 

Up until this week, board members, who had at times praised MGT employees, were seen by many in the community as trying to make the best of a bad situation. But Tuesday, Loria forced them into publicly voicing their support or opposition for the management company and gave them a choice to end the contract, even if the vote is symbolic for now.

The vote is only one step in a process. Because the district held a contract with MGT, and because that contract was ordered by the State Board, district officials must make their case to the state at a meeting next week. 

In a presentation to the city council for Commerce City Monday night, Loria said that the district is not trying to avoid following the state order, but that the district must have high expectations.

“We are OK having managers, and we are OK following orders. We are just not OK with having managers not giving what they promised they would give,” Loria said. “We believe our students deserve the best.”

School board President Ramona Lewis added at the end of the meeting that the board supports Loria.

“We know we have the right leader on board,” Lewis said. “If we can make it work with an external management partner, we’ll do our best. We still have a lot of things to think about.”

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