Adams 14 leaders plan to resist state efforts to reorganize the long-struggling school district, and they’re getting support from their neighboring districts, a united front that suggests the state will face an uphill battle in its efforts to force change on the community.
“I think we’re going to have far more allies on this than the State Board,” said Joe Salazar, an attorney for Adams 14.
The Adams 14 school district north of Denver has tested the power of the state’s accountability law as it has faced many firsts. Unlike other states, Colorado does not have the authority to directly take over the operations of school districts.
In 2018, when the state ordered the district to submit to an external manager after years of low academic performance, the local school board remained in place. And in 2021, when that board hired its own superintendent, Karla Loria, she soon pushed out the management company, MGT Consulting.
Now, concerned that district leaders don’t have what it takes to lead new plans to improve student performance, and that they’re unwilling to share enough responsibility with outside help to do so, the State Board of Education has stripped the district’s accreditation and ordered that it be reorganized, a move that could mean the dissolution of the district, school closures, and students being absorbed by neighboring districts.
But Colorado has never done this before, leaving many unanswered questions about how the process would work. Meanwhile, the law gives local communities significant leverage over the state.
Neighboring leaders rally to Adams 14’s side
While Adams 14 has had a tenuous relationship with some of its neighbors in the past, Loria this year rallied colleagues and has received their support. District leaders hope others will join them, even if it’s just to defend local control.
The state has named Mapleton, 27J, and Adams 12 Five Star school districts as participants in the reorganization process along with Adams 14. According to the law, a committee made up of members appointed by the school boards and district accountability committees of each district would draft a plan for new district boundaries. Once a plan has been approved by the committee and the education commissioner, it must go to the voters of the affected districts.
Speaking to how new and uncertain the process is, the state education department originally put out a fact sheet that indicated the school boards themselves would need to sign off on the plan. But that requirement actually pertains to a different reorganization process in another section of state law.
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When he briefed the Adams 14 school board last week, Salazar also believed local boards would need to vote on the plan. That means state officials have a problem, he said.
“You want to mess with Adams County, we’re going to rally like Adams County,” he said.
While the process doesn’t require the approval of school boards, they can shape the outcome by appointing committee members.
And if they don’t want to create a plan, there’s little the state can do to force compliance. Removing accreditation is mostly symbolic — though it has been the threat behind state orders in the past. It’s meant to show parents that the district has been consistently low performing. But parents already know the district has challenges, and many have been outspoken in support of local leadership and believe the state accountability system judges them unfairly.
Decision “in the hands of the community”
Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said the reorganization of Adams 14 is not a foregone conclusion, and the outcome really depends on the community.
“I hope they make a good faith effort, and I have no doubt they will do that,” Anthes said. “If they make this decision that they don’t want to reorganize or a plan doesn’t make sense or they can’t come up with a plan, we’ll have to reevaluate the plan at that stage. The decision is in the hands of the community.”
District 27J Superintendent Chris Fiedler said that he supports Adams 14. His Brighton-based district covers parts of Commerce City and will be included in the reorganization committee.
“I believe we’re compelled to participate under the law. I can’t opt out, but I’d like to,” Fiedler said. “I still believe the answers to providing success to the students in Adams 14, they exist in Adams 14. I believe Karla to be an exceptional superintendent, certainly one of the best ones I’ve seen in my tenure.”
Besides believing in the district’s current leadership, Fiedler said for him, this is about local control and trusting that district leaders know their needs better than the state does.
Mapleton’s Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio also said she supports Adams 14 and criticized the state accountability system that has given Adams 14 low ratings.
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“What’s happening to Adams 14 is a direct result of a system that fails to assure fairness and equity across all communities,” Ciancio said in a statement. “The accountability and accreditation system in Colorado is significantly flawed. Using the results of a test administered only in English in a community that is primarily Spanish speaking to rank their schools is but one example of the injustice. As we move forward to identify the next best path for Adams 14, we will continue to call for a new accreditation system for Colorado’s schools!”
Lawmakers have ordered an audit of the state’s accountability system to determine whether it’s working as intended, including whether it hurts the low-income students of color the system is supposed to protect. The results are due in November.
Adams 12 representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Denver, which also borders Adams 14, is not part of the process because a 1970s state constitutional amendment prevents Denver’s school district boundaries from growing unless the city’s boundaries also change.
State board decision “destabilizing”
Jason Malmberg, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, said the feeling in schools last week was one of heartbreak. Many people are confused as to what comes next, while others feel upset that the state would step in so far, he said.
Malmberg said the State Board decision was destabilizing in ways board members can’t understand. “The solutions being suggested are not helping,” he said. “They’re making it worse, not better.”
Malmberg said he’s also worried about what the orders mean for local control.
“Does the State Board of Education have the right, in the 21st century, in a democratic country, to dissolve a democratically elected body?” he asked.
If the reorganization committee were to draft a plan that dissolves the district entirely, giving up areas to other districts, the local school board of Adams 14 would be dissolved.
Salazar said that is an area of concern he has about the law.
He also worries that reorganizing the district will be a way to bring in more charter schools, though Anthes said she doesn’t believe that would be under the scope of the reorganization committee.
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Other possible scenarios include dissolving Adams 14 and creating a new district with a new name and the exact same boundaries, as a way to rebrand and get a fresh start, or letting neighboring districts take on just parts of Adams 14, so the district could focus on improving fewer schools.
In the meantime, Adams 14 leaders say they’re still working on educating students. Leaders there are continuing negotiations to partner with nonprofit consultant TNTP. According to the plan the district presented to the state, TNTP would work “side by side” with the superintendent to make recommendations.
The district will also have to go back to the state next month to present its plan for Central Elementary. The district is seeking more autonomy to turn Central into a community school offering various support services.
The state had allowed the district to proceed with the plan last month to flesh it out, but State Board members must give final approval in June or order another action, which could still include closure.
Anthes raised the possibility that if district improvement efforts are successful before a reorganization plan is created, perhaps the State Board may change course.
“We could see the district implement these plans, and we could see outcomes starting to change and my board could revisit the decision,” she said. “Maybe the reorganization order would go away. In the meantime schools are open, kids are going to school and we want those schools to improve.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.