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.”



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:





preliminary

Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.