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Durango School District 9-R denies Ascent charter application

Board of Education cites numerous concerns with plan, lack of local interest
Durango School District 9-R voted against Ascent Classical Academies’ charter application after three weeks of review. (Courtesy of Durango School District 9-R)

Durango School District 9-R Board of Education voted unanimously Monday against approving a charter application from Ascent Classical Academies.

Despite support from several families, board members voted to deny Ascent’s application citing multiple reasons, including no plan for dealing with students who have individualized learning disabilities.

“I had a lot of concerns about the special education section of the application,” said Kristin Smith, school board president. “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. 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.”

Board members were also concerned about a lack of local interest. Smith said not enough members of the Durango community were involved in developing the school’s plan.

“I understand that this is a replication school, but I also understand in the Durango community, a growing community, a need for how this replication school may be tailored to our unique community,” she said.

She said it is a challenge for a local community like Durango to be involved in decision-making when Ascent’s governing board is located on the Front Range.

School board member Andrea Parmenter took issue with what she called the adult-centric language used in the application.

“One of the things that is important to me in education is the student voice,” she said. “In terms of the student satisfaction in the Ascent application as written, it is very adult-centric.”

Parmenter noted how Durango 9-R’s mission and vision extended statement references students 21 times, whereas the Ascent statement referenced students only twice.

Parmenter grappled with Ascent’s relationship with Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college based in Michigan. While Ascent is not a member of Hillsdale and is following a classical education model, it does ascribe to Hillsdale’s curriculum, she said.

“I do wonder how that can be completely separate, especially when I look around this curriculum and see sort of this Anglo-centric view of the world,” she said.

The school board also said language in Ascent’s application does not “respect and honor” gender diversity. Specifically, the application says, “The end goal of a classical education is not just the smart man or woman, but the good man or woman.” Smith found the language to be potentially discriminatory toward students who may not identify as either.

School board member Katie Stewart was concerned the school would not advocate for students who may be the most vulnerable.

Stewart said the most vulnerable students are special education students, students who do not speak English as a first language and LGBTQIA+ students. She said Ascent did not make an effort to address their needs in the application.

“Obviously, we’re being told by a community that a need is not being met,” Smith said. “As presented, the Ascent application is not equitable. It does not address the needs of those most vulnerable in our community, and we as a board have to take that into consideration.”

Before the board member work session to decide on Ascent’s application, members of the community were given a chance to comment on Ascent’s application.

Kristen Mischker requested Ascent be approved under the condition that it be released to the Colorado Charter School Institute. She argued that would avoid an appeal process that would be costly to the district and taxpayers.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, school districts with exclusive chartering authority must give permission to the applicant before CSI can be authorized to accept school applications.

“Open records requests reflect that 9-R has already spent over $50,000 on legal fees to their out-of-town Denver attorney between Ascent and litigation over the past 10 months and that doesn’t include the months of May or June,” Mischker said. “Between 9-R suing Ascent in February and being tried by the state Board of Education for not acting in the best interest of the students, 9-R has shown poor decision-making with taxpayer money.”

According to the school district, the lawsuit referenced by Mischker was the school district seeking declaratory judgment on the timeline to submit Ascent’s application.

“The vast majority of our communication with Ascent has been about them wanting to change the timeline,” said Superintendent Karen Cheser. “The state statute says Aug. 1 to Oct.1 is the time for submitting an application and that’s what 99% of the school districts around the state do. We have a school board association policy and that’s dependent on that statute.”

Cheser said it was a board decision to decide not to review the application earlier and she felt strongly that the application submission needed to be within state parameters.

A motion to dismiss the judgment was filed June 2. Cheser said the dismissal made sense because the state board had already ruled.

Dale Ruggles, another Ascent supporter, said 9-R is not trying to benefit all students like it says in the district mission statement.

“When you state ‘all’ students in your mission statement but refuse to engage in fair forthright discussions on Ascent charter as evidence by recent emails, it becomes clear that 9-R policies are fake and irreverent,” he said. “It is only window dressing to fool the uninformed.”

Ruggles cited the ruling by the state Board of Education as evidence that Ascent was not receiving a fair review. He said the state Board of Education made comments about the Durango School District’s incompetency.

He argued that bringing 400-plus home-schooled students into the district will bring over $9,000 of new money with each student.

“I urge you to consider a working solution that will allow new students to join 9-R. Currently, playing politics and showing incompetence may cause the state board to disband the 9-R board like they did in Adams 12,” Ruggles said. “I’m asking this board to forego further political behavior and approve this charter school.”

District staff members and the District Accountability Advisory Committee also reviewed Ascent’s application and recommended that the board not approve Ascent’s application.

District staff members found Ascent met just eight of the 35 criteria rubric standards. The standards were based on school culture, leadership, educational programming, teaching and governance.

Staff members also evaluated Ascent’s fiscal impact as coming at a loss of more than $3 million to the district.

“There weren’t very specific detailed plans with Ascent’s application,” Cheser said. “When we’ve seen applications before, for example, with Animas High School, it was extremely detailed. You knew exactly what was going to happen for kids.”

Ascent has 30 days to appeal to the state board.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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