On the Agenda

Adams 14 school board votes to give superintendent a raise with no prior notice

Adams 14 Superintendent Javier Abrego celebrates with teachers at Kearney Middle School during an event highlighting the school's rating in August 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The school board for Adams 14 approved a raise for Superintendent Javier Abrego Tuesday after amending their agenda during their meeting. The surprise vote came in a year when the district’s progress has been tested.

Abrego took over the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district in 2016 and has a contract running through June 2019. The addendum, approved on a 3-2 vote, raised his salary to $169,125, up from $165,000, and will be retroactive to the start of this school year. The board also gave Abrego a $25,000 contribution for his retirement account.

The board’s decision comes while the district is in the middle of a state-ordered improvement plan. While the district began the year celebrating that it had earned a higher rating, bringing it one step closer to coming off the state’s plan, the board recently also heard from state officials that the district is struggling to comply with data requirements and is not meeting goals.

The district this year has also been attacked by community members upset with many changes, including cuts to recess, elimination of scheduled parent-teacher conference days, and changes to a biliteracy program.

Colorado’s open meeting laws generally require that the public have 24-hour notice before elected officials discuss something. There are certain exceptions that give school boards some flexibility to add items to their agenda.

But experts say that in this case, Adams 14’s board should have given the public notice — before the meeting — that they were going to vote on the superintendent’s contract.

“That’s not the intention of the sunshine law,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Essentially if they know they’re going to do this, it should be on the agenda. The public should have a good idea of what’s coming up. There are emergency things that come up, but this doesn’t sound like an emergency.”

In describing the contract addendum the board was about to vote on, Adams 14’s board president, Timio Archuleta, said that all administrative staff in the district had received a 2.5 percent step increase, and that the superintendent should have also received that.

“It was thought that this was taken care of last fall, but the addendum had not been finalized for approval, so I’m asking the board for approval tonight,” Archuleta said.

The signed document describes the $25,000 payout as a “one-time compensation for services rendered to the district under this contract during the 2016-17 school year.”

The board members did not discuss the salary increase in the open meeting before voting.

Board member Bill Hyde attempted to abstain from the vote, but the board’s attorney said that would require the board president’s approval. Archuleta did not allow Hyde to abstain. Hyde and board member Harvest Thomas voted against the salary increase.

Hyde did not say why he wanted to abstain from the vote.

Before the meeting started, the school board also had a study session where, in part, they discussed with a consultant whether and how they should evaluate the superintendent.

Although Abrego’s contract states that the board shall evaluate the superintendent every year, officials say it hasn’t happened.

According to the contract, the board “shall evaluate and assess in writing” the superintendent’s progress toward meeting goals each year. But the contract also states, “at a minimum, this evaluation shall include a meeting between superintendent and the board.”

Hyde pushed the board to commit to scheduling a discussion to pick between three superintendent evaluation tools that Adams 14 can begin to use.

The consultant pushed the board not to focus on the “tool” for evaluation so much as the practice of doing so.



apology

Criticism mounts for Adams 14 school board for asking police to escort critic out of meeting

File photo of the Adams 14 school board, including Connie Quintana, right, the board's current president. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Two organizations are demanding the Adams 14 school board apologize for removing a vocal critic from a public meeting, after he insisted on calling out school officials by name in criticism officials characterized as “not constructive.”

Jorge Garcia, the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, has been a frequent critic of the district and Superintendent Javier Abrego ever since the district stopped the expansion of biliteracy programming. At the last meeting, top district officials interrupted Garcia and ordered police to escort him out.

Tuesday the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent the school board a letter, signed by their attorney, asking for an apology to Garcia, “for violating his First Amendment rights,” and attacking the board’s unwritten policy against criticizing district officials and staff by name. It asked for a response by Oct. 1.

“The board’s silencing of Mr. Garcia represents viewpoint discrimination that the First Amendment forbids,” the ACLU’s letter states. “Mr. Garcia has every right to mention Superintendent Abrego by name when providing public criticism of a public official who is the highest-ranking executive officer of the Adams 14 School District.”

Tuesday afternoon, officials from the school district did not return a request for comment.

Earlier, the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, where Garcia is executive director, also issued a statement, asking for an apology from the school board. In its statement, the association wrote that Garcia offered to resign “in order to spare the organization any possible retaliatory litigation targeting him,” but the association’s board unanimously rejected the offer and instead supported Garcia’s attempts to speak to the board.

“CABE is the foremost advocate for educational equity for emergent bilinguals in the state​,” the association wrote. “Jorge’s initial actions at the Adams 14 board meeting were perfectly consistent with this role.”

The board has its next regular meeting Tuesday evening.

Read the full letters below:





out of order

Frequent critic of Adams 14 school district, and advocate for bilingual education, removed from public meeting

Jorge Garcia addressing the Adams 14 board just before he was escorted out. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Martinez, founder of Transform Education Now.)

Adams 14 district leaders ordered police to kick out the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education from a school board meeting this week, as he stood at the podium midway through his comments criticizing district staff.

In removing Jorge Garcia, a frequent critical voice at district board meetings, officials cited a policy that bars “personal attacks” during public comment. The board’s attempts to regulate public participation in its meetings have prompted discussion among board members and others and raised questions about how the district engages with the community.

Garcia was the first speaker at the board’s public comment session Tuesday, as he has been for most meetings in the last year. He started by criticizing the district’s performance on state tests.

“Despite [Superintendent Javier] Abrego’s attempts to make it seem like this district is doing so much better this year than in years past, the truth is that the district is still not off the clock,” Garcia said, referring to the district being on a state watch list. “He promised that he would have the district out of turnaround in two years or he would resign. That was the first of many false promises to this community.”

“Turnaround” is a state label indicating the district needs to improve.

Connie Quintana, the board president, first interrupted Garcia’s comments to tell him he could not use people’s names — as frequently requested of speakers in the past year, despite the lack of a written policy stating that names can’t be used.

Garcia responded that he could use names, and continued reading his remarks prepared for the three-minute allotted time. A little later, Quintana interrupted again as he was criticizing a meeting Superintendent Abrego and his staff held with CU Boulder’s School of Education.

“This is not constructive,” Quintana said to Garcia ordering him to stop as the officer came to stand by Garcia. Garcia raised his voice, visibly upset. Superintendent Abrego said, “get him off,” and the officer then escorted out Garcia, who was still shouting.

A video below shows the exchange starting at about minute 23:10.

The district’s policy about public comments prohibits personal attacks but states that it welcomes constructive criticism if it is “motivated by a sincere desire to improve the quality of the educational program.”

“The school district also has confidence in its professional staff, and desires to support their actions in order that they be free from unnecessary, spiteful, or destructive criticism and complaint,” the policy states.

Adams 14 spokesman Alex Sanchez said the district permits speakers to express criticism.

Other speakers Tuesday, including the one directly after Garcia, also criticized the district, but were not called out of order.

Sanchez also said that Quintana didn’t really mean that Garcia shouldn’t use names, but that she was asking Garcia to stop making personal attacks.

“We don’t discriminate based on whether it’s negative or positive,” Sanchez said. “He violated policy. He was called out of order. The board president had the right to revoke that privilege.”

He later described a personal attack as comments naming people. “If he had said a person’s position or title, it would have been different.”

Quintana, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment about why she called Garcia out of order.

Garcia said he was not trying to attack anyone.

“I was giving them facts to ask the question, how will you be addressing the district’s image,” Garcia said. “You should know what your employee is doing and how he is representing the district. It is absolutely relevant.”

School board member Bill Hyde, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, has questioned the board policy before. He once blogged that Abrego emailed board members “advising them to bar non-residents from speaking during the public comments,” citing the policy as justification. Garcia is one of several advocates for biliteracy education who do not live in the district and regularly speak at board meetings.

Hyde has also pointed out in meetings that board policy does not restrict the board or speakers from using people’s names.

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU, would not comment specifically but said in general, school districts should not have too much room to interpret what is allowed or not.

“Any rule or regulation that restricts or controls when or what can be said in a public forum needs to be clear …. so that officials interpreting the policy do not have free reign as they enter into their evaluations.”

At a meeting in April, when the board had a staff member from the Colorado Association of School Boards give them a presentation on how to govern as a school board, Hyde asked about the policy.

Randy Black, a director of member relations for the association, told the board that controlling comments during a public forum is a challenge.

He urged the board instead to consider that people making personal attacks might signal that the public does not feel engaged.

“How do people feel involved or valued or listened to or heard?” Black asked the board.

District spokesman Sanchez also acknowledged that Tuesday’s incident signals a lack of community engagement.

“We recognize you eliminate a lot of this by having authentic community engagement outside the board room,” Sanchez said.

Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez, the leaders of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on parent advocacy, said the problem was on display just a day later at a meeting Wednesday when they heard from parents who said they felt “intimidated out of participation.”

The district only recently has had police present at board meetings.

“School districts must take safety and security seriously,” Sanchez said. “We provide security to protect both the public, our students and staff. This is normal and a best practice for school board meetings.”

Garcia called the tactic unnecessary and intimidating.

“It seems like they want to instill fear in the community and in a community with so many immigrants who have good reason to fear a police presence, it seems like they are the ones being targeted,” Garcia said.

Garcia had started addressing the board last year when the district stopped the rollout of a biliteracy program. He often criticizes the district and superintendent over policies affecting bilingual families and students.

The superintendent has responded to Garcia’s comments in the past, disputing much of his criticism.

Garcia was not cited. As he left the meeting he shouted that the board would be hearing from his attorney. Later he said he wants to give the board the opportunity to “right their wrong” but said that if they don’t, he may consider “other options.”