As the school board versus Critical Race Theory controversy has faded from the headlines, some districts are still wrestling with the fallout where the public school system has been shown to be less devoted to educational excellence than previously thought.

School district blocks charter school

By Renee Parsons

As the school board versus Critical Race Theory controversy has faded from the headlines, some districts are still wrestling with the fallout where the public school system has been shown to be less devoted to educational excellence than previously thought. In Colorado, after nine school districts were flipped from being pro CRT to restoring parental rights and renewing a commitment to academics, in southwest Colorado the Democratic machine overwhelmingly defeated its opposition cited as ‘right wing extremists,’ despite the non-partisan nature of school board elections.

One issue that continues to struggle for recognition has been adding a highly anticipated charter school to the 9R public school district in Durango as the Ascent Classical Academy (ACA) attempted to file a Notice of Intent to Apply. The ACA, which expects to eventually serve K–12, is part of the Ascent Classical Academy Charter Schools, a Colorado charter school network that has a sterling reputation and has successfully opened three other charter schools around the state over the last nine years. No charter school like the ACA, which would offer a classical, content-rich education using Core Knowledge and a liberal arts and science curriculum, exists in southwest Colorado.

In April of 2021, Ascent informed the then–9R district superintendent of its intent to file. Unbeknownst to Ascent, he was in the process of leaving his position at 9R. With no response from 9R, Ascent filed a Notice of Intent in July 2021 and again in August 2021, both with the proposed first-day-of-school to be in the fall of 2023. According to the Colorado Charter School Institute (CRS 22-30.5-504[8]), the law contains a statutory timeline during which a school district must accept all Notices of Intent during the year prior to opening day, which would have locked Ascent into a first-day-of-school in 2022. The statutory language also gives the school district the authority to waive the timeline and the flexibility to consider the benefits of approving a new charter school, as was done on behalf of The Juniper School (K–5), which required more than one timeline waiver and other cooperative advantages in order to open its doors in 2017. In other words, if locked into a 2022 open-door date, Ascent could not adequately meet the bare requirements for any new school: hiring a first-class faculty and staff, developing the necessary infrastructure and a physical facility, and implementing its curriculum and class culture.

However, with a new 9R superintendent and new school board in place, ACA’s application was met with reluctance, delay and, finally, a brick wall as the board refused to waive the timeline in order to facilitate a new educational institution in 2023 in Durango, despite the fact that over 462 “expressions of interest” have been received as indicative of interest in the Ascent project. The current board alleges that a cooperative stance toward Ascent would somehow inexplicably be “unfair” to any other applicant — of which none exists at this time.

One noteworthy example of how the board responded to Ascent’s 2023 date was its refusal to acknowledge either the ACA’s original July 2021 Notice of Intent or its follow-up filed on August 28. The ACA later learned that the board, acting without a publicly announced public meeting and without convening a formal executive session, privately conferred with its Denver attorney and obtained legal advice regarding the ACA’s Notice of Intent. Soon thereafter, at the close of the board’s next public meeting on September 7, 2021, again with no public agenda item as required by Colorado’s Sunshine Open Meetings Law, the board discussed the ACA request and made an official decision to reject consideration of it. Therefore, the board took official action as it made a legal decision on the basis of legal advice without conducting a public hearing or allowing any member of the public or any of the 462 interested parties to make public comment.

In a September 14 email, the board informed the ACA that it was “decided” that “in the best interests of the district,” it would not consider the ACA’s request for a waiver to allow its earlier Notice of Intent.

It is worth noting that the great majority of respondents, 70% of potential Ascent attendees, were from homeschoolers, private or online schools, or out of district, while 30% were from 9R’s current 5,000-member student body.

The process stalled further when the district’s newly appointed superintendent shocked Ascent with an October 5 letter that stated, “I will decline your offer of a further meeting,” followed by a misleading email to potential Ascent parents failing to indicate that the Board had the authority to grant a timeline waiver and to act in a more collaborative manner than it had heretofore in order to facilitate Ascent’s Notice of Intent.

After months of unnecessary delay and obfuscation, the ACA does have an alternative, which is to pursue a Request for Relinquishment, which would allow Ascent to seek authorization directly from the CSI in order to initiate approval of its application in the hopes of opening by 2023. On December 13, Ascent filed such a request, as the board must give its approval. On January 11th, the Board denied Ascent’s Request as they remained adamant and unyielding. In unanimous agreement, the Board persisted in maintaining control of the application as they prove to have no real commitment to the concept of a charter school.

It remains inexplicable why a duly elected school board would seem to deliberately thwart an opportunity to add another school to its district that would significantly increase the value of its educational contributions to its community and improve the educational experience for its children. This Board would appear to benefit from a “training” session to provide a better understanding of its legal responsibilities and its obligation to better fulfill its civic role most especially to all its children.

Renee Parsons served on the ACLU’s Florida State Board of Directors and as president of the ACLU Treasure Coast Chapter. She has been an elected public official in Colorado, staff in the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, an environmental lobbyist for Friends of the Earth, and a staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives in D.C.