budding issue

Aurora superintendent says no to charter school locating near marijuana shop

Students of Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Colo. Photo provided by Vega Collegiate Academy.

Update: The State Board of Education on Feb. 15 dismissed an appeal from Vega Collegiate Academy and told the school to go through the mediation process outlined in its contract with the district.

A charter school looking to move out of a church basement as it expands into more grades next year has halted its plans after the Aurora school district rejected the school’s desired location — near a pot shop.

City and district officials say it’s the first time the issue has come up in Aurora since marijuana retail businesses began opening in the fall of 2014.

State law prevents marijuana stores from opening within 1,000 feet of a school, but it doesn’t address schools opening near existing marijuana businesses. Vega Collegiate Academy’s contract with the district states the superintendent must approve any relocation. In this case, he didn’t.

Vega officials had already spent $40,000 on traffic studies, building plans, and deposits for the space at Colfax and Galena, about a mile from its current location in a church in northwest Aurora. Many parents had seen some plans and were excited about the expansion and larger space that might allow for more programming such as yoga or art.

Charter school officials appealed the denial – first to the school district and now to the State Board of Education. The final purchase of the site, and the remodeling that would have had to taken place to have students move in this fall, are on hold.

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega, told the school board last week that the denial sends a bad message to the school’s students.

“Your denial of our space has told our children and families that it’s O.K. to live there, just not to go to school there,” Mullins said. “That is unacceptable.”

Because of the pending legal challenge, Aurora Public School officials said they would not comment on the denial. But in a letter to the school, Superintendent Rico Munn said the location – 300 feet from a marijuana dispensary – raises concerns. In trying to reconsider his decision, he noted he reviewed parent support letters, maps, crime data, and research about crime near marijuana dispensaries.

“I continue to have concerns,” Munn’s letter states. “I have not found anything to change my original denial.”

Vega school officials said that finding a location for the school was “a Herculean accomplishment in Colorado’s tight commercial market,” according to appeal documents.

The proposed building, a three-story retail building most recently housing a barber shop, is next to a Dollar General and was attractive in part, because it is close to where families of current students live and because of the large size.

“Our children deserve to go to a quality school close to their home,” Mullins told the board. “Our children and families should not be punished because of where they live or what facilities currently exist in our community.”

Proposed location at 10180 E. Colfax Ave.

Vega opened in August, enrolling almost 100 kindergarten and fifth graders. The plan is to expand by two grade levels a year until the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. A high percentage of families in the northwest Aurora area live in poverty — a population Vega officials want to serve.

The proposed school site on Colfax has an entrance in the back that opens south onto a parking lot so that students would not have to enter from Colfax. An alleyway connects the parking lot to a strip mall with a Starbuds dispensary whose entrance faces west.

Reached on Friday, Brian Ruden, one of the owners of the Starbuds pot shop, said he was not aware of the possibility of a school relocating there.

In Denver, analysis done by the city and by the Denver Post in 2016 found more than 20 schools that are located within 1,000 feet of a marijuana store. In most cases, the schools moved in after the marijuana shop.

DPS officials did not respond to a request for comment about how they make decisions for school locations near marijuana shops.

The connection between crime and marijuana has been contentious and definitive evidence does not exist.

The 1,000-foot buffer was created by the state in 2012 after federal officials sent letters to medical marijuana shops informing them that they would enforce federal drug laws near schools. Federal prosecutors have generally followed a policy of not going after businesses that follow state law, but it’s not clear how aggressive the current administration will be on imposing federal enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana sales.

Vega employees, parents, and community members also spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday about the decision. Mullins, the founder, said more than 200 parents, employees, and community members packed the board meeting, many with signs in support of Vega’s relocation. Thirty-five people signed up to speak, but because of the lengthy list, the school board limited the speakers to four.

“It would be very close to my home and so would make life a lot easier for me as an older person raising kids,” one grandmother told the school board.

The woman, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she knows the area has a bad reputation, but said locating a school in a building that has often been empty could help change that.

Another mother, Arely Suarez, who said her fifth-grade daughter attends the school, told the school board in Spanish that the students need the bigger space.

“The kids have a right to a good education,” Suarez said. “As far as the marijuana dispensaries, this is a factor at the state level, it’s not just a factor that is affecting the Aurora school district.”

The legal challenge the state must first consider is whether it has jurisdiction for the appeal. Vega officials asked for the appeal, saying the district is imposing unreasonable conditions on the charter school.

But the Aurora district argued in filings that they have authority over the decision. The filings state the state board does not have jurisdiction because the superintendent, not the Aurora school board, made the decision, and because the dispute is not an unreasonable condition. The district argues the charter school should first remedy the conflict according to a process outlined in their contracts that would include mediation.

Either process could stretch out for months.

This story was updated to reflect more accurate information about the building.

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent:

More Time

Aurora school board rejects superintendent’s proposal in first big decision on school turnaround

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school board members voted against the superintendent’s plan to improve school performance at Lyn Knoll Elementary School after weighing competing recommendations Tuesday.

The vote — a split decision with two veteran members voting against the majority — was the first major decision for the new school board and could signal a new direction for how the district will handle low-performing schools. Four of the seven board members were elected in November as part of a union-backed slate.

Two weeks ago, Aurora Public Schools staff and Superintendent Rico Munn presented the board with a turnaround recommendation for Lyn Knoll, a school that enrolls fewer than 240 students and that earned, for the first time, the lowest quality rating from the state this year.

The district’s proposed plan was to contract with an external manager to help the school improve instruction, teacher training, and family engagement and to do marketing and recruitment to attract new students to the school.

“I believe that next year, if we leave the status quo, Lyn Knoll is likely to pop back up on the performance frameworks, but it’s about are the structures in place, as best we can tell, for a sustained improvement,” Munn said. “Those structures are not in place. This is not a recommendation to get rid of Lyn Knoll. This is not a recommendation to convert Lyn Knoll into a charter.”

Even so, board members questioned the need to hand over some management of the school to an outside company or consultant.

“I’m concerned the district would entrust our school to a partner who’s unfamiliar with our population,” said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the board member who made the motion to reject the superintendent’s recommendation.

The alternate plan that the board approved was presented by the district’s joint steering committee, a group that oversees the district’s three pilot status schools, including Lyn Knoll. That recommendation was for the school to keep its current pilot status for another year under a set of conditions. The committee offered to watch over the school as they make changes, including some that are already in the works, such as the roll out of a new curriculum and new data planning.

Union President Bruce Wilcox, who is also a member of the committee, presented the opposing recommendation for Lyn Knoll, and told the board Tuesday that the decision would send a larger message to the Aurora community.

“Will the board make a fully informed decision or will the decision be made to move forward with a plan where the details remain a mystery to parents, community members, and teachers?” Wilcox asked the board before the decision. “This is about more that one school and one decision.”

Based on the district’s own policies, when a school earns a turnaround rating, the district reviews the school’s needs and prepares a recommendation for improvement which could include a number of options such as turning the school into a charter or into an innovation school with increased autonomy.

The school’s existing pilot status, a model that was created by former district leadership working with the district’s teachers union, already gives it some autonomy.

As part of the creation of that school model, a joint steering committee was created to oversee the pilot status schools.

Speaking for the committee, Wilcox said the loss of 12 teachers due to budget cuts may have contributed to the drop in performance, along with other factors

“They had undergone such a significant change last year in staffing and programming that we wanted to give them an opportunity,” Wilcox said.

Munn argued that his recommendation was not based on just one year’s data.

The board will later have to clarify how the district or the committee will oversee changes at the school.