APS board votes to shut down Vega Collegiate charter school over special education allegations

872

AURORA | At a packed and sometimes emotional board meeting, the Aurora Public Schools board voted Tuesday to shutter a high-performing charter school over allegations it didn’t comply with special-education regulations.

School board members voted unanimously to approve APS Superintendent Rico Munn’s recommendation that Vega Collegiate Academy’s charter be revoked due to an incomplete special education program. Board member Kevin Cox was absent.

APS’ charter agreement with Vega will end at the end of the current school year.

The school will appeal the decision to the state Board of Education, which can force APS to reconsider and eventually demand APS reopen the school.

Tim Farmer, who is representing Vega’s Board of Directors, said Vega will file the appeal soon. The school has 30 days to appeal the decision.

Vega supporters briefly shouted “shame” at school board members after the vote.

Vega Board of Directors President declined to comment immediately after the board’s decision. Dozens of students, parents and staff cried and hugged in the lobby before the board’s agenda continued.

They included Etelborto Torres and his son Alexander, 10, a fifth-grader at Vega.

“It’s bad, bad,” Torres simply said of the decision. He said he didn’t know where Alexander will go to school next year, but he is considering private schools rather than Boston Elementary, the neighborhood school where Alexander studied for five years before Vega.

Alexander said he mostly threw paper airplanes during those years and played outside too much. His father said he improved a great deal at Vega.

Vega is often lauded for achieving a high academic growth rate with a diverse and low-income crop of students. The charter school, located in the basement of a church near the intersection of Moline Street and East Colfax Avenue, 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 currently provides kindergarten, first, fifth and sixth grades but would have added grades until all k-8 levels were reached.

The revocation decision stemmed from an APS investigation into Vega’s special education program which found it was not adequately staffed.

On Tuesday, however, the school board also raised other concerns with the school.

Board member Dan Jorgensen read an anonymous letter alleging that the school was an unclean and emotionally toxic environment for some students and staff. According to the anonymous letter, Vega staff forced a student to clean up dead mice infesting the building, failed to reduce bullying and acted negligently and aggressively toward students.

Vega leadership generally acted willing to meet district requirements during the revocation process and spoke openly about some of the school’s shortcomings.

“We are a new school, we’re going through some growing pains ― and that’s not an excuse,” Marshall told the 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.”

At that school board meeting, Munn’s Office of Autonomous Schools argued that Vega did not adequately staff special education programs — mandated by state and federal law — and gave false information to the district about its progress filling a vacant special education position.

APS could have been liable for federal funding attached to federal special education requirements for shortcomings at Vega, according to APS legal counsel Brandon Eyre.

About 12 percent of the almost 200 students enrolled at Vega receive special education instruction, according to board member Miguel Lovato.

The district also alleged that Vega admitted two students requiring center-based care, which it said Vega did not offer. One of those students later left Vega and is owed almost $6,000 for the special needs services they did not receive, according to the district.

However, Vega has made progress toward fixing its issues. Leadership called for more time to correct problems and a better working relationship with the school district.

On Tuesday, Marshall, Lovato and many parents pleaded with board members to keep the school open, but to no avail.