State school board overrules APS, effectively saving Vega charter school from closure

475

DENVER | The state school board effectively forced Aurora Public Schools to keep open a highly successful charter school it tried to shutter over claims of illegal special education programming and deceit.

In a contentious and crowded meeting Thursday, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to remand an APS school board decision earlier this year to shut down Vega Collegiate Academy, a charter school in north Aurora.

The state board recommended that APS work with Vega and state special education experts to institute some reforms at the school and sanctions if rules are broken. The APS school board will consider the recommendation, but Vega could appeal any further decision to close the school, and the state board can eventually force APS to keep the school open.

Chris Kattau, a parent with a first-grader enrolled at Vega, was elated after the board’s decision. Scores of Vega students danced and high-fived in the Board of Education lobby.

“It’s awesome – I love it,” Kattau said. “I’m relieved.”

He added that he would have sent his Vega student and also his youngest child, an incoming kindergartner next year, to Jefferson County schools if the board sided with APS to shutter Vega – not an APS school. Instead, he’ll enroll both children in the school next year, he said.

“We appreciate that the State Board acknowledged that APS has the right and responsibility to make sure that Vega complies with the law,” said APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen. “Now we will need to evaluate if Vega can operate in a way that meets APS and the State Board’s expectations.”

The decision keeps alive Vega, a school with exceptional test score growth in reading, and the highest math test score growth of any school in the state – even with 90 percent of its students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, a marker of poverty. The school provides kindergarten, first, fifth and sixth grades and will build up to all k-8 grade levels.

At the hearing, APS legal representatives doubled down on claims that Vega misrepresented itself to district officials investigating a lackluster and potentially illegal special education program.

APS Superintendent Rico Munn recommended the APS school board earlier this year to shut Vega down because of issues with its special education instruction, which is mandated by federal law. APS legal counsel Brandon Eyre advised the board in February that the district could be liable for operating a school district that was violating federal law.

Legal counsel for the state school board confirmed that APS may have been legally liable for the Vega students who did not receive the proper special education classes.

APS claimed that several students were not getting enough special education instruction and raised questions over whether qualified staff were employed at Vega. They also contended that Vega misled district investigators and told a staffer to lie.

Vega admitted it was at fault in some cases but pledged to resolve the issues if allowed to work further with APS.

That sentiment prevailed at the state board. Members including Val Flores, representing Denver, expressed frustration that the two sides could not fix the issue by working together.

Miguel Lovato, who sits on Vega’s Board of Directors, said the conflict partially stemmed from different philosophies about how charter schools should operate in the district. He said Vega viewed its relationship with APS as a partnership, but believed APS – which approves charters – saw Vega in a subservient role.

Regardless, he said Vega was ready to work and resolve the issues.

The conflict between Vega and APS was compounded by tough questioning from board member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs at APS board member Debbie Gerkin.

At one point, Durham asked Gerkin to turn around and look at the dozens of Vega students seated behind her and tell them that they had to go to a different school, which would have been necessary if the board had sided with Gerkin and the APS school board.

Gerkin looked at the students, but maintained that APS had district-run schools that could have accommodated them if the board sided with APS. She added that she simply wanted the children to go to a good school.

APS officials will appear at the state Board of Education next month to defend a recent decision closing Hope Online, a network of charter schools operating in and around APS.