Durango, Education, Featured, Sherrie Peif

Durango school board shoots down new charter applicant; Ascent Classical CEO calls foul

GOLDEN — The Durango 9-R School District on Monday denied the authorization of a new public charter school that would have served about 400 students from across the district in a move the CEO of Ascent Classical Academies, Derec Shuler, says he still doesn’t understand.

Shuler said he believes school officials spent more time writing the denial letter than they did reviewing the charter application, and that the reasons for denial were unfounded.

“They never even let us present our proposal to the public before they let the public make comment on the charter application,” Shuler said. “A district that’s in decline, is in the 7th percentile in math among American Indian students and in the 20th to 30th percentile in math among Spanish students, somehow gets to come in an evaluate our program and determine if it is good enough, when all our schools are above state average.”

The decision wasn’t much of a surprise, however. The district initially refused to even review the application. However, in an appeal, the State Board of Education ruled in favor of Shuler and instructed the district, which has what’s known as exclusive chartering authority, to review the application, giving the district 30 days to do so.

Exclusive chartering authority allows a school district to decide whether to allow a public charter school to operate within its district. It also will oversee certain aspects of the school and act as a pass through for funds from the state.

In Ascent’s case, Shuler, who operates two other Ascent Classical Academies in Lone Tree and Windsor and has one that will open this fall in Grand Junction, asked that the board allow the school to be authorized through the Charter School Institute, a state-wide charter school authorizer, for purpose of consistency with its other schools.

That would have saved the district from having to share any local revenue with the charter school, but the district still said no.

The denial came after a controversial email was sent out in the district from an unknown staff member urging Durango high school teachers to oppose the school because it will take students from the district.

“Please note that if Ascent gets approved, it is anticipated to cause a further decrease in enrollment across our district,” the email reads. “For those of you who don’t know, less students = less $$. Please think about signing up to speak at the forum and providing your thoughts on whether we need another charter in our small town.”

Although state law does not allow school districts to consider funding or loss of enrollment as a reason for denial, it appears that is what the Durango school board did consider, even requesting an impact study on the district if the school were approved.

At the board meeting on Monday, the district estimated it would lose approximately $3 million a year in revenue, a number Shuler said was based on bad numbers.

“They used the number of interested families rather than the intended number to enroll,” Shuler said. “They found we met one of 24 criteria. It doesn’t even show a serious effort to review our application. It was an afront to the entire process.”

Shuler said it took the district 38 minutes to read the denial document.

“I think they spent more time writing that denial than they did reviewing the charter,” Shuler said.

In its denial of Ascent, Durango officials said one concern was Ascent was too focused on students working hard.

“There’s a statement that they’re committed to any student who is willing to work hard and respond to the school’s commitment to character,” said board president Kristin Smith in the Durango Herald. “I feel like this statement is lacking resolution. There are some students with disabilities and challenges that make it really hard for them to work hard in school at times.”

They also said they were concerned with lack of local interest, although the school had more than 600 families interested in 400 open slots.

“It was not backed by any real data,” Shuler said. “Despite hundreds of families saying they wanted this choice. It’s easy for the front range, big district to have charter schools, it doesn’t move the needle much. Do rural Coloradans do not deserve the same choice in education that suburban/urban parents get?”

Shuler said he is still considering the next steps. He could appeal the process back to the State Board of Education. The Durango Herald reports the district has already spent more than $50,000 in legal fees through April on the issue.

“I need to see the official resolution, learn more about the review process and have more conversations with parents in community to determine our next steps,” Shuler said.


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