Activists revive APS Vega School controversy to shore up legislative charter-school support

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AURORA | A statewide activist group is reviving an Aurora charter school dispute as part of a campaign to sway legislative opinions among long-running tensions between traditional public and charter schools.

Ready Colorado, a self-described “center-right education reform advocacy organization” in Denver, released a website and video attacking Aurora Public Schools and celebrating the achievements of Vega Collegiate Academy in spite of an attempt to close the school last year over what APS officials said were lax and illegal special education programs in the school. 

The media campaign is centered on a popular north Aurora charter school and possible changes to the state’s charter school appeal process, which routinely keeps charter schools open despite the protests of local school districts.

APS unanimously voted to close the school in February 2019. Vega appealed the decision to the state Board of Education, which hears charter school closure appeals. The board unanimously overturned APS’ decision — overruling the district to keep Vega open in April 2019.

In its campaign, “Save Our Charters,” ReadyCo celebrates the state board’s decision and suggests APS shut down the charter school over jealousy of its success. 

In its campaign, Ready Colorado also says that APS tried to shut down Vega “despite” Vega’s success, “or perhaps because of it.”

Vega works with a student population that is largely impoverished and learning English, but students have produced some of the top test scores growth in the state in the last two school years, earning an award from the state Department of Education in the process ― all from a church basement. 

 “This is the charter school that we want people to know about,” said Tyler Sandberg, Ready Colorado’s vice president.

But he said Vega’s impressive, high-test-score growth was “unfavorable and uncomfortable” for APS officials seeing less growth in district-run north Aurora schools. 

The Vega debacle began in February 2019, when APS school board members voted to close the school after a district audit of the school found staff were lying about a special education program inadequately serving some students. 

APS oversees Vega, but unlike traditional public schools, Vega’s charter school status means it is largely independent from the school district. 

APS later said Vega officials told staff to lie to administrators about deficiencies in their special education program, which was likely in violation of federal law. District officials also said Vega was possibly violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. APS officials also raised concern about lax programming for students’ English language development. 

The district’s charges were a plot twist for Vega, which was turning heads while operating out of a church near East 13th Avenue and Moline Street. 

Vega officials later apologized to APS for shortcomings in their school organization and resolved to improve with district help. 

Sandberg told The Sentinel the claims backing the APS decision to close the school were over “technical” issues and partially motivated by embarrassment that that the district schools in the area were fairing comparatively worse with a similar student body. 

APS officials dispute the claim. 

“The campaign’s claims as to why the APS Board of Education voted to revoke Vega’s charter are lies,” said Patti Moon, a district spokesperson, of the website and video. 

Moon called Vega’s violations of its charter “serious.”

“The school was not meeting the educational requirements of students with special needs and providing inadequate support for English language development,” Moon said. 

When Vega appealed the district’s closure decision to the state Board of Education, board member Debbie Gerkin explained her rationale. 

“We had no concerns with student achievement,” APS board member Debbie Gerkin told the state school board in its April hearing. “But I could not turn my back on children who have IEPs who should have been provided services,” she said, referring to special needs students’ Individualized Education Programs, which were in dispute. 

She also said the lack of trust between the school and district was an important factor in her vote to close the school. 

Vega officials worked to get past the troubled relationship.

“We are a new school, we’re going through some growing pains ― and that’s not an excuse,” Vega Board of Directors member Mark Marshall told the APS school board on Feb. 5. “We need to do better. But we provide a service to these kids that would be sorely missed if we were not allowed to have our charter in APS.”

Sandberg said Ready Colorado are highlighting Vega’s story a year later in response to what he said are attacks on the state Board of Education’s power to override local school district decisions shutting down charter schools. He says that process ultimately saved the school and undermining it could jeopardize schools like Vega. 

He said state Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, was sponsoring a bill, not yet introduced, that could make it easier for school districts to close charter schools. 

Bird declined to provide The Sentinel with a copy of the proposed bill, saying she “can’t share the draft quite yet.” She said there’s no such language in the bill limiting the state board of education’s ability to remand charter school closure decisions in cases like Vega’s. 

But Sandberg provided the Sentinel with a Jan. 25 copy of what he said is Bird’s bill. That draft appears to allow for another step in the charter-school dispute process: After the state board overrules a school district, the district could then appeal to a district court. Another provision would prevent a charter school from appealing a local closure decision to the state board of education for “health, safety or welfare” reasons. 

Bird said she plans to introduce the bill soon this legislative session, which ends in May. She would not comment on the language regarding closure disputes in the bill supplied by Sandburg.

Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said he’s aware of the bill. Cook said CASB does not comment on legislation that hasn’t been introduced yet, but he said Colorado’s legal treatment of charter schools is now decades old.  

“Any time you have a process for that long, it is good sometimes to go back and take another look at it,” he said. 

Cook didn’t note specific instances in which the state school board overruled the local school board, such as in Vega’s appeal, but said CASB supports “local control” of education.

“We think the Constitution is pretty clear,” he said, “locally elected boards of education have control of instruction in their districts.”

Sandberg said that, theoretically, the reportedly proposed process would make it more expensive for charter schools like Vega to fight removal orders.  

After the state school board handed Vega’s fate back to APS, school board members approved a new contract with the school in May 2019. 

APS allowed the school to continue its work with its low-income and non-English speaking students if it addressed its special education issues. In addition, Vega must work with district staff to ensure those students are getting mandated programming, among other requirements. 

Moon said there aren’t any new developments with Vega as far as APS is concerned.