Ascent Classical Letter to the Durango 9-R School Board re Release to CSI

TAscent Classical Academy studentshis evening, the Durango 9-R Board of Education is expected to vote on the request to allow Ascent Classical Academy of Durango to work with the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI).  CSI is a statewide authorizer, dedicated to the success and accountability of high-performing charter schools that serve families across Colorado.

The 9-R staff and board members still appear to not understand how an early application or releasing the school to work with CSI is needed or in the best interest of families and the community.  However, neither the 9-R staff nor board has asked Ascent Classical Academy to present to the board or be available for questions on these very reasonable requests.  Read the text of the email Ascent Classical Academy of Durango sent to the Durango 9-R School District and Board of Education on January 24, 2022 offering to participate in their meeting this evening.

Dear Directors of the Durango 9-R Board of Education,

On behalf of the hundreds of families who have completed an expression of interest and are hopeful to have a classical charter school option in the Durango community, I would like to thank you for considering our formal request from December 13, 2021, to allow our charter school to work with the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI).

I would like to reiterate Mrs. Gilmartin’s offer that Ascent Classical staff is available and prepared to participate in the board meeting on January 25, 2022.  To date, we have not been contacted or invited to present our request or to answer questions, while there seem to be several outstanding ones.

We have noticed in 9-R communications to our interested parents and in the recent Jan 11 meeting a lot of inaccuracies or still unclear reasons behind our very reasonable requests for both an early application and our current request for a relinquishment to CSI.

We remain concerned that the reasons behind our requests and 9-R’s understanding of charter process do not appear to be represented accurately.  We believed our letter from December 13, 2021 was clear about the reasons a successful charter school would benefit from additional time, a greater need in the current environment with the additional challenges from COVID.  Our reasons are based on our recent and direct experience.  We also understand the district staff has expressed issues with their capacity and ability to review a charter application at this time.

An example of this is found in the recent article in the Durango Herald, “Ascent Classical Academy charter subject to Durango school board’s decision,” published only this past weekend.  This recent article mentions Dr. Cheser still wondering why an earlier application is beneficial to a stronger and more successful opening.  Dr. Cheser also stated the charter approval process is only 3 months, rather than the 6 months prescribed in CRS 22-30.5-107(2).  In reality, an August 2022 application could push a charter contract back to March 2023, only 5 months before opening, and this is without an appeal to the State Board of Education along the way.  Nothing is official until a charter contract is in place. This public misstatement on the time required to complete a charter contract is another indication of the lack of expertise among district staff.

While 9-R has asked the community to be cooperative and patient with the district due to COVID, we ask 9-R to also consider the impact COVID has on other stakeholders, like new charter applicants, who are also affected by global supply chain shortages and related challenges.  We did ask the district in April of 2021 for guidance to allow us to submit an application in August of 2021 but were ignored, something we think should have weighed heavily in the district’s consideration of working with our school on application timelines.  We documented this in our December letter to the 9-R board.

At this point, if these are still the questions and statements from the superintendent and members of the board, we would like to be having a direct conversation with the board to ensure correct information is provided to guide decision making that would have a profound impact on parents in the community.  It doesn’t require any additional work on behalf of 9-R and would demonstrate an equal commitment to collaborate with a potential partner serving children in the community.

As we articulated in our letter in December, having an earlier contract would benefit the school, community, and district by:

  • Allowing the school to hire and start a school leader earlier, to prepare the school for opening. The Colorado League of Charter Schools recommends having a school leader in place 6 to 12 months before school opening.
  • Starting work on a facility, which requires planning and design, permitting, and the actual construction itself. The 9-R Bond Oversight Committee advised the Board of Education on November 11, 2021 that current market lead times for simple items like roofing materials, door hardware, HVAC, and other items are on at least 4-5 month lead times, for the district’s own projects.  For a charter applicant to hire an architect and contractor, conduct facility design and submit permits, or “pre-work” without a charter contract, would be highly  imprudent and warrant significant concern, rather than a recommended action to mitigate a late charter contract.
  • Hiring of staff. The normal hiring cycle and career fairs start in January. The national classical career fair is held in early February before ACA Durango would expect a charter contract.  The school cannot make job offers without authorization to start a school in the fall of 2023.  Also, the sheer numbers of new hires to staff the school requires an early start to ensure success.
  • Allowing the school to spend the Colorado Charter Schools Program (CCSP) Grant, a $300,000 grant to assist in the start-up of new schools. CCSP funds are available as early as January but a charter contract must be in place before the school can spend those grant funds. This grant allows the incoming school leader and another office staff member be hired upon the release of funds.  Once funds are released, CCSP recipients are expected to order furniture, equipment, and curriculum.  From experience, lead time on these items, especially furniture, are lengthy and approached 9-10 months this past year.
  • Providing families certainty in their school choice for the following year.

Dr Cheser said in the recent Durango Herald article that the board has ECA for a reason and isn’t eager to release that authority.  We ask 9-R to base its decisions on the best interest of children, not the authorities of the board.

During the February 26, 2013 9-R board meeting, at which the district voted to reapply for exclusive chartering authority (ECA), the presentation included an assurance that recovering ECA would demonstrate that 9-R is not opposed to school choice but would allow a new charter applicant the option of working with 9-R.  There were concerns from the board that schools should have the option to work with CSI as politics may take over allowing parents options they desire for their children.  Comments were also made at this meeting that letters of support for 9-R regaining ECA were only due to the then-superintendent and those relationships did not exist under other regimes.

The then-superintendent assured the board that “if it is managed well and the leader takes responsibility for what is in the best interest of kids, it doesn’t have to be political.  As a district, when charters come forward, working with them for success is good.”

We hope the district’s commitment to doing what is best for kids and providing access to options parents want has not changed too quickly.

Historically, 9-R under previous leadership has shown a robust willingness to be collaborative and engaging with charter applicants to do what is best for families.

Our team understands the district lost most of its staff with charter experience, the new superintendent does not have a background in charter schools, and the district is resource constrained and unable to evaluate a charter application.  These things happen. However, ACA Durango is a proven, replication program, that has enjoyed wide success, and has been recognized by the Colorado Department of Education to be “high-quality.”

While ACA has approached Durango 9-R to establish a school in good faith, based on the interactions and concerns to date, working with the state authorizer is a win-win for all parties.  9-R board members have talked about the hundreds of hours the review process would take, that would be spared, and CSI would allow ACA to submit a replication application.  We understand it takes humility to give up control but this endeavor is widely supported and needed by families in the community.

A 9-R board member recently stated that seeing our charter application would help her make a decision on our request for a relinquishment.  For this reason, ACA intends to submit a completed charter application within the next 2 or 3 weeks.

Based on a suggestion from another 9-R board member that Juniper Charter School submitted its third charter application early, rather than late, our team re-reviewed 9-R’s policy LBD-R.

The clear language of 9-R’s own policy on charter applications, that our team previously overlooked, indicated the application window for a fall 2023 start is already open.  LBD-R states “On or before August 1 of the year preceding the proposed opening of the district charter school the applicant shall submit the application to the district’s designated administrator.”

This window meets the statutory requirement by including August 1 among the application dates and also allows the district to offer other submission dates by mutual consent, which we agree to.

We appreciate the board’s time and commitment.  This is volunteer work and we applaud your desire to serve families and children in Durango.  For convenience, I am also including resolutions adopted by other districts that exclusively changed their charter application windows to earlier date, based on their acknowledgement this is in the best interest of successful school openings and their districts.

Please feel free to reach out and as mentioned, I am available to address any questions tomorrow evening with reasonable notice.

Again, I and hundreds of families appreciate your support to ensure the success of this school.


Derec Shuler