APS says new evidence shows Vega charter school officials pressed teachers to lie about special ed troubles

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AURORA | Aurora Public Schools officials say the principal of a popular but embattled charter school told an employee to lie to district investigators in an attempt to get past a dispute over special education instruction endangering the school.

School district officials say malpractice in the school’s special education program led to a pending legal battle for the future of the school, now intensifying with allegations of an attempted cover up.

APS is asking the state Board of Education to consider what they say is new evidence in Vega Collegiate Academy’s appeal of a decision last month to shut down the school. The district submitted an email from a Vega special education teacher, they say illustrates that Vega tried to cover up a deficient special education program mandated by federal and state law.

Vega charter school board officials said they continue to support the principal and said they will provide new information as well in the dispute.

“We obviously take the allegations very seriously,” said Vega board member Miguel Lovato. Vega has hired a third-party investigator who conducted interviews with school staff. Lovato said that has restored board members’ faith that the principal did not do anything wrong.

He declined to elaborate on what new findings the Vega investigation uncovered but did say the school could make information public soon.

The APS school board voted last month to shut down Vega Collegiate Academy, a relatively high-performing charter school formerly authorized by APS, because of inadequate special education instruction for students with developmental or learning disabilities. Vega appealed that decision to state officials, which will be considered by the state school board of education next month.

APS is now asking state officials consider the ew evidence when deciding the fate of Vega.

The crux of the case is whether Vega skirted guidelines for special education instruction by not providing a credentialed staff instructor for children with individualized education programs, and whether the school tried to cover up the alleged malpractice by misleading district investigators.

State law requires students with special instruction needs to receive a certain number of minutes of class time with a credentialed instructor. The district charged that Vega did not have a legally certified instructor for several months beginning in late November 2018, although Vega did hire an instructor then.

The new APS evidence obtained by Sentinel Colorado includes testimony from a district official about a conversation with the unnamed special education instructor Vega hired then. The teacher said a Vega principal instructed her to tell the district that the program was being implemented legally when it wasn’t, according to the official’s testimony.

Separately, the evidence includes an email from an unnamed teacher who said a Vega principal told her to lie about the program. APS acquired the email through a Colorado Open Records Act request of a University of Colorado special education training program.

“The school lost its contract with APS and it is because of lies they told the district regarding me and my position and not meeting IEP minutes,” the employee said. “I was told by leadership to lie to the district and any lawyers that tried to speak to me.”

In hearings last month, APS officials said several students were still not receiving their mandated special education instruction. One student was owed thousands of dollars in services they did not receive, the district said.

Lovato, the Vega board member, stressed that the allegations were untrue and  that the school was in the “throes of an investigation,” the he says could dispute the new APS claims.

Regardless, it’s possible that the APS official’s testimony and the teacher’s email would not be considered by the state board of education when they make their decision on Vega’s appeal next month. A spokesperson for the state school board said Commissioner Katy Anthes would decide this week whether the board will consider the new evidence.

The school board only considers pre-determined evidence in charters schools’ appeals of local school districts’ decision to revoke their charters, including the upcoming appeal filed by Vega.

Vega led the state in math-score growth last year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. Over 90 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of low-income households.

The school will close at the end of the school year unless Vega’s appeal is successful.