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Durango School District 9-R declines to review Ascent’s second charter application

Board of Education says applicant failed to meet a deadline
Durango School District 9-R voted against reviewing Ascent Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado’s charter application, saying Ascent did not provide the necessary application components before a mutually agreed upon deadline. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango School District 9-R voted unanimously Tuesday not to review Ascent Classical Academy’s second charter school application submission.

The decision was made on the basis that insufficient information was provided to the school district within an agreed upon timeline.

Ascent Classical Academy’s first charter school application was denied June 13 by the school board. Ascent then appealed to the Colorado Board of Education, which upheld 9-R’s denial on Oct. 13.

While the appeal was pending, Ascent submitted a second charter school application to 9-R under the name “Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado” on Aug. 1. Kristin Smith, president of the Durango school board, said school administration reviewed the second application and deemed it was incomplete. The administration documented the missing items in a written notice sent to Ascent on Aug. 14.

Some of the missing components included a teacher retention section, description of qualifications for all licensed and classified employee positions, and employee compensation schedules.

School district policy gives applicants 15 days to provide missing items from an application after being notified of the issues, which is in compliance with the Colorado Charter Schools Act.

Smith said Ascent Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado was given 45 days to provide the necessary information, setting the deadline on Sept. 28, because of the pending state board appeal.

Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado missed the deadline and did not respond until Sept. 30, Smith said.

Smith later said Ascent Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado’s legal counsel notified the school board on Sept. 30 that it had missed the deadline and asked the board to review the charter application anyway.

Smith cited the Colorado Charter Schools Act policy that says a local board of education is not required to take action on a charter school if the applicant does not provide the required information by the deadline.

School board member Katie Stewart on Tuesday made a motion to deny Ascent Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado’s request for a deadline waiverciting district policy and the Colorado Charter Schools Act. Erika Brown, vice president of the board, seconded the motion.

The motion opened discussion about the academy’s application and whether the board should review it despite missing the deadline.

Smith said the school board has stuck to its policy and revised it for clarification through the process of reviewing Ascent’s applications.

“If we were to suspend this policy or overlook this part of the policy, we would have to do that every single time a charter applicant came through,” Smith said.

She said the law is specific about the 15-day deadline, and through a legal agreement the board allowed a 45-day deadline because of the state board’s appeal review.

Board Treasurer Rick Petersen said the agreement between Ascent and the school board was mutually beneficial.

“It was acknowledged that we were working through this appeal of the first denial and if it had gone in one direction, it would render the second one (application) moot,” he said.

Board secretary Andrea Parmenter said the application deadline policy is clear and noted that Ascent held 9-R accountable earlier this year in a state board case regarding a lack of clarity in 9-R’s application deadline policy.

Previously, the deadline policy said all charter applications had to be submitted “on or before Aug. 1,” which created confusion during Ascent’s first charter application submission. Now, the policy has a hard deadline of Aug. 1, which Ascent met but failed to add the necessary components to the application by the deadline the two parties agreed on.

Brown also said the state Board of Education upheld 9-R’s denial of Ascent’s first charter application, and not much has changed in its second application.

“It’s my understanding that the second application is not substantially different from the first,” Brown said. “Knowing the amount of resources it takes for the district, as well as the board and community and if it’s highly likely the second application is going to be denied for the same reasons, I’d be very hesitant to accommodate that.”

Smith acknowledged changes had been made to Ascent’s application. She said two of the changes involved Ascent’s language on special education students and the school’s affiliation with Hillsdale College, which were concerns for the school board in its previous review.

“They had some parts of their application before that would exclude certain special education students from that school,” Smith said. “And they had kind of changed the language to be more inclusive.”

With respect to Hillsdale College, Smith said the new application says the academy only subscribes to the curriculum of Hillsdale rather than uses the institution for teacher training.

Board members are unsure whether Ascent Classical Academy of Southwest Colorado will appeal 9-R’s refusal to consider its second application.

Ascent Classical Academy CEO Derec Shuler said hundreds of Durango-area families are disappointed with the outcome.

“This school board is acting as a gatekeeper, preventing them from having the best choice for the public education of their children,” he said.

He said the school district is making up application requirements that do not exist in their own policies.

Shuler said Ascent Classical Academies provides a great education that surpasses the academic performance of Durango School District 9-R.

“They should allow a classical option to families in the Durango area or allow this school to work with the state charter authorizer, as most charter schools in Durango do,” he said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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