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Colorado Springs charter school on brink of closing stymied by D-11 board's delays

June 10, 2018 Updated: June 11, 2018 at 4:17 pm
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The first of eight modular buildings were delivered to Pikes Peak Prep charter school on Monday July 16. Murphy Construction prepared the land for the buildings and worked on installation. The school on Costilla Street leases the adjacent land from the Assistance League of Colorado Springs. Photo by KRISTINA IODICE/The Gazette

In what's being called a heartbreaking development, a 12-year-old charter school in a low-income neighborhood is headed for closure for at least one academic year and possibly for good.

"The parents are very upset," said Janet Nace, principal of Pikes Peak Prep.

A recent shakeup with its management company, the Indianapolis-based Greater Education Opportunities Foundation, resulted in the sale of the school property at 525 E. Costilla St., and left Pikes Peak Prep searching for a new location.

What was thought to be a simple solution has become a complex problem.

The K-12 school in the Hillside neighborhood has provided free transportation, books, fees and tuition to high school students to attend college, along with other amenities, such as extended school hours, to provide more opportunities for poor and middle-class families.

"Quite a few of the students have been in the school since it opened," Nace said, which makes them seniors in the fall. "We're trying to identify opportunities for these students to finish graduation requirements and to continue as college students."

Some 300 students and 20 staff are being displaced just a few months before the fall semester begins. Nace said she's working with families to find new schools for the fall that fit their needs.

Pikes Peak Prep has "served the community exceptionally well, and especially within the geographical area it is located," said parent Chris Stark.

Now, he believes, "The school is being unfairly treated."

Pikes Peak Prep operates under the Colorado Charter School Institute, a statewide authorizer of 41 charter schools, which are free public schools that have more freedom than traditional public schools in governance, curriculum, financial models and other aspects.

The school obtained permission last month from its authorizer to continue on without the services of its management company, but it needed to find a new location.

School leaders wanted to stay in the Hillside neighborhood, Nace said. Their idea was to renovate the 1902 portion of the shuttered Helen Hunt Elementary School over the summer to temporarily house staff and students next school year.

Colorado Springs School District 11 closed Helen Hunt in 2016 and sold the property to the John E. and Margot L. Lane Foundation, with the condition that it house services beneficial to the neighborhood.

A deed restriction stipulates it cannot be used as a school.

Changing that condition requires approval from the D-11 board,in order for Pikes Peak Prep to move forward with working with the Lane Foundation to recondition and lease the space.

The seven-member D-11 board has discussed the issue in two closed-door executive sessions, citing it's a real estate matter that necessitated legal advice.

Since the talks were held in executive session, the district won't comment, said D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

According to a June 5 letter Pikes Peak Prep sent to parents, the D-11 board "voted on May 30 against Pikes Peak Prep moving into the Helen Hunt building, stating it was due to their concerns with the safety of the facility."

Under Colorado's open meetings law, elected boards of government institutions can meet in private to discuss certain matters but are prohibited from making decisions behind closed doors.

Ashby said board members did not make any decisions in executive session, but rather, "direction was given to the superintendent."

After Pikes Peak Prep submitted a "detailed proposal" on how the school planned to address the board's safety concerns in bringing the building up to code standards, the D-11 board again took up the issue in a closed-door session on June 4.

"Initially" Ashby said, "the district decided to not waive its title-use restrictions. However, the district has reconsidered and asked for additional information."

The board has tentatively scheduled a public meeting for June 20 to review the information, Ashby said.

Too late for the coming school year, says Pikes Peak Prep.

Colorado Charter School Institute had granted Pikes Peak Prep two extensions to accommodate D-11 making a decision, Nace said, and June 20 is beyond the deadline.

The D-11 board was aware of the time crunch, she added.

"We are crushed by this news," Pikes Peak Prep's letter to parents said.

That leaves the school with the option of seeking a one-year hiatus from the Colorado Charter School Institute or closing permanently, according to the letter.

The school is continuing to explore other locations, said Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute, adding that her organization has been "in close communication with Pikes Peak Prep regarding its facility plans."

"While we're disappointed that the opportunity for this plan to be realized has not been possible to date, we applaud the school in moving forward and keeping the interests of families and the community at the forefront," she said in an email.

"We are working closely with Pikes Peak Prep to identify the feasibility of continuing operations for next year and beyond."

Nace said D-11's handling of the request has been upsetting.

"We wouldn't have put children in harm's way," she said, referring to the board's concerns.

Several nonprofit organizations lease space in the newer part of the Helen Hunt campus, and the Lane Foundation was prepared to help the school complete a fast-paced rehab, said Zach McComsey, who works with both the Lane Foundation and the Legacy Institute, an organization that advances public education and community development in Colorado Springs.

"We were surprised when D-11 denied the request," he said. "We weren't asking for Pikes Peak Prep to be there permanently."

The plan was a temporary solution, he said, and improvements addressing safety, fire and access could have been made initially, with other enhancements down the road.

"It seemed like a fairly simple win all the way around," McComsey said. "But I told Pikes Peak Prep I had no idea where the D-11 school board would land on this It's a tough spot for them. They got themselves into this situation, and needed a last-minute solution."

What concerns McComsey most is that the Hillside neighborhood stands to lose another school, just two years after Helen Hunt was shuttered.

While a new charter school, Monarch Classical School of the Arts, is opening in the fall in Pikes Peak Prep's old building, it's not the same as having an established school that's served the nearby school children for more than a decade, McComsey said.

"It's disappointing for the community to be left without a school; it deserves better than that," he said. "We've been trying to find something to go in that building (the original Helen Hunt) and because of zoning it makes sense that it's a school."

The hope, said Nace, is that Pikes Peak Prep will be able to take a one-year break and be resurrected for the 2019-2020 school year.

"It's a time to energize ourselves and have a fresh start for us as a school," Nace said. "Nobody thought this would play out the way it has. We all have the same goal in mind - providing good learning opportunities for students. It's just unfortunate."

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