An unprecedented legal battle between the Adams 14 school district and a local charter school could have ramifications for charter school governance across the state.
The Adams 14 board passed a resolution this winter asserting its authority over Community Leadership Academy in Commerce City and requiring it to reapply for a charter or else close its doors altogether—a move the school has appealed to the State Board of Education, and which state officials say is illegal.
Adams 14 relinquished control of the school to the state Charter School Institute in 2011.
But Superintendent Pat Sanchez said he and the district’s board members are concerned that the status quo means the district has no control over the charter school’s planned expansion.
Community Leadership Academy recently started a high school, Victory Prep, and announced a goal of adding up to 4,000 students to its current enrollment—currently around 875—by 2019. The Adams 14 district currently enrolls just over 7,500 students, so such an expansion would likely put a significant dent in district funding.
No school district has ever attempted to reclaim authority of a school governed by the institute, a state agency that serves as a charter authorizer and runs 34 schools enrolling 14,000 Colorado students.
“We believe it has never happened before because it is not legal,” said Ethan Hemming, the director of the Charter School Institute. “It’s clear that the resolution is a violation of the law and needs to be rescinded.”
In a letter from the state’s attorney general’s office to Sanchez, Anthony B. Dyl, the senior assistant attorney general, wrote that Adams 14 “cannot attempt to turn back the clock” and reassert its authority over the charter school. The Charter School Institute’s board perceives the district’s action as a “broad and significant threat against all charter schools and against school choice in this state,” he wrote.
Nora Flood, the director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said it would set a bad precedent if the district were able to reclaim control of a school it had previously given up without the school’s consent.
However, Sanchez said the expansion of Community Leadership Academy is not in the interest of the students and parents in the small, high-poverty school district.
Adams 14 officials also dispute the state board’s authority to rule in this situation. The state board will determine in February whether it has the right to rule in the case or whether the matter should be handled in court.
A troubled relationship
The charter school and district have had a fraught relationship from the start.
When Community Leadership Academy applied for a charter, the local school board sought to put conditions on its approval that included, for instance, granting the district the ability to name members to the charter school’s board. Those conditions were removed after the school appealed to the state board of education, and the charter school opened in 2005.
In 2010, the charter school sought permission from the state board to be authorized by the state charter institute rather than by Adams 14. That request was denied and appealed. In 2011, Adams 14 rescinded its authorization of the charter school while retaining its ability to authorize other charter schools in its boundaries.
Last fall, the relationship turned contentious once again. In November, the school board voted to rescind the resolution that transferred the charter school to state institute in the first place and require the school to reapply to be authorized by district or else close by the end of the 2014-15 school year.
In December, the board passed a revision to that resolution that delays the deadline until December 2015.
Sanchez said the board’s actions were prompted partly by a letter in which Ron Jajdelski, the director of Community Leadership Academy, simultaneously disparaged Adams 14’s academic performance, claimed the district had misrepresented its progress, and announced plans to expand the charter school enrollment dramatically.
In the letter, distributed at parent-teacher conferences shortly before the November election, Jajdelski also criticized a November mill levy ballot issue that would have provided Adams 14 with additional funds for building and construction projects. That mill levy didn’t pass.
Jajdelski said the letter was “provoked by our sheer frustration…They keep trying to drag us back into their dysfunctional abyss.”
“There are about 7,000 kids in the community. For us to have true education transformation in this community, we have to have 51 percent,” he said of the goal of enrolling 4,000 students.
Meanwhile, Sanchez said the district is in a gray area. “We have a CSI school in our boundary. As they expand, how does the communication or interaction go?”
Adams 14 officials claim that when Community Leadership Academy created its high school, Victory Prep, it in fact created a separate school and should have had to vet the plans with the local district. Charter school leaders argued that the Victory Prep is an expansion. The schools have different school identification numbers, and Victory Prep moved into a brand new building this year. The schools share administration, budget, and other components, according to school representatives.
District’s motives questioned
In July, Adams 14 will begin its fifth year on the state’s accountability watchlist—at which point the district will have to prove that it has taken action to improved its lowest-performing schools or risk losing its accreditation. One possibility is chartering its schools, though Sanchez said the board was currently most interested in gaining innovation status for those schools. This would keep them under district control.
Meanwhile, Community Leadership Academy was dubbed a failing school soon after it opened, but last year it and Victory Prep both earned the highest rating on the state’s scale.
District officials say they are most concerned about determining how to work together with the school and the Charter School Institute. “We have no desire to oversee CLA,” Sanchez said.
Jajdelski says he believes the board’s resolutions are punitive and aimed at shutting the school down.
Since this fall, the district has issued three requests to Community Leadership Academy under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Sanchez said the requests were an attempt was to clarify the claims about academic performance and expansion made in Jajdelski’s letter. “The intent of using CORA was, if you’re saying these things [about expansion plans and academic performance] in this letter, we need to see some documentation.” He said the charter school has not yet replied to all of the requests.
Jajdelski says the CORA requests are “retaliatory…this is not about transparency or public accountability.”
Meanwhile, Hemming said that while the CSI has had several schools transfer back to their local districts, that decision has always come from the school rather than the district and had not involved an adversarial relationship.
“It’s not in the interest of children and parents to have this tug-of-war going on above them,” Hemming said.