Who Is In Charge

Lobato plaintiffs pick apart state’s case

The state defendants in the Lobato v. State case “ignore the evidence and engage in speculation,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued in a brief filed Wednesday with the Colorado Supreme Court.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe 80-page document is the plaintiffs’ formal reply to the attorney general’s appeal brief, submitted to the court on July 18. The state is appealing the December 2011 Denver District Court ruling that Colorado’s school finance system violates state constitutional guarantees of a “thorough and uniform” K-12 education system and also violates the constitution’s requirement for local control of instruction.

The Colorado Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in Lobato could have sweeping but hard-to-foresee effects on school districts, classrooms, the state budget and the taxes that Colorado citizens and businesses pay. A ruling for the plaintiffs could be costly, and a decision for the state could mean a lean future for Colorado schools.

Central to the state’s defense are the arguments that upholding the district court decision would be an unconstitutional judicial intrusion on the executive branch and the legislature, and that education spending must be balanced with other state budgetary needs.

The plaintiffs’ brief takes on both of those arguments.

It asserts that the first argument was settled by the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling that the Lobato case could go to trial and that the courts had jurisdiction over the constitutional issues. The high court set a standard that the plaintiffs had to prove at trial that the school finance system isn’t “rationally related” to the state constitution’s education clause.

The state defendants “ask this Court to permit a dissatisfied litigant to keep re-litigating settled issues until it finds a receptive judge or justice. The Court should reject Defendants’ disregard for the Court’s decisions,” the plaintiffs’ brief argues.

Referring to Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport’s 2011 decision, the brief reads, “The court did not dictate the new funding system’s structure or dollar amount, recognizing that ‘these are appropriately legislative and executive functions.’ … The trial in this case looked like any other trial on complex constitutional questions. The court heard competing evidence from lay and expert witnesses, found facts based on the persuasiveness of the evidence and the witnesses’ credibility, and applied the law to the facts. The court did not make education policy. Nor need this Court stray into the policy realm.”

On the issue of competing state needs, the plaintiffs’ brief reads, “Any need to fund non-school services cannot justify the arbitrary underfunding of education. The Lobato test [in the high court’s 2009 ruling] protects the affirmative rights stated in the Education Clause and respects the separation of powers doctrine. The trial court did not clearly err in finding that the legislature made no effort to determine the resources needed to provide, or to fund, a thorough and uniform system of schools. The record does not support defendants’ improper and premature speculation about the impact of the trial court’s decision on the State’s budget.”

Who’s who in the case

The plaintiffs include 67 individuals – parents and students – who live in six school districts, plus 21 school districts. They’re represented by Children’s Voices, a non-profit Boulder law firm, and by a variety of private lawyers. An additional 27 individuals living in four districts entered the case later as intervening plaintiffs and are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The defendants are Gov. John Hickenlooper, the State Board of Education and education Commissioner Robert Hammond. They’re represented by Attorney General John Suthers and his staff.

Also filed Wednesday in support of the plaintiffs were a dozen “friend of the court” briefs representing 28 organizations or groups of people, including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the ACLU of Colorado and the Bell Policy Center. A friend of the court is referred to as “amicus curiae” in legal language.

A smaller number of friend or amicus briefs were filed in July in support of the state’s case. Groups filing those briefs included the University of Colorado Board of Regents, three former governors, a coalition of business groups and two health care groups. The Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools also filed what they called an “informational” brief in July.

The state’s argument

The primary assertion made in the state’s 64-page July brief is that the district court decision should be overturned because it ignores the state constitution and gives legislative and executive powers to the judiciary.

The state’s brief, along with most of the amicus briefs, also made the point that the high court needs to consider all state budgetary needs, not just whether K-12 funding is constitutional, in making its eventual decision.

The district court considered only the issue of whether the K-12 funding system meets constitutional requirements.

“Nothing in the Education Clause [of the state constitution] suggests the duty to provide a free public education overrides either legislative discretion or the competing demands for limited state revenue,” the state’s brief argued.

What’s next

The state has until Oct. 18 to file a reply to the plaintiffs’ brief, although it can request an extension. After that, the court will decide on the scheduling of oral arguments. Because the court has only a limited number of days each month for such arguments, it’s possible those won’t take place until next year.

The original Lobato lawsuit, filed in 2005, was rejected by two lower courts, but the state supreme court voted 4-3 in 2009 that it could go to trial.

Two of the four justices who voted to revive the case, then-Chief Justice Mary Mullarky and Justice Alex Martinez, have since left the court. Their replacements are Justice Brian Boatwright, a former district judge in Jefferson County, and Justice Monica Márquez, a former assistant attorney general. Márquez worked on previous stages of the Lobato case while serving in the attorney general’s office.

It’s up to an individual justice to decide whether to recuse oneself from a case.

A 3-3 supreme court tie on the Lobato appeal would have the effect of upholding the district court ruling.

Whatever the court’s ultimate decision, the question of school finance will end up in the legislature. The district court decision basically ordered the legislature to come up with a new system.

Even through the district court decision came down before the 2012 legislature convened, lawmakers pretty much ignored the issue this year pending appeal. The advocacy group Great Education Colorado is running an organized campaign to pressure lawmakers to take the issue up in 2013, and Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is working on possible school finance legislation for next year.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”