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Civil lawsuit filed in wake of Colorado Springs charter school's struggle with schism in leadership

July 10, 2017 Updated: July 11, 2017 at 11:21 am
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Pikes Peak Prep (Gazette file photo)

A schism this spring between its top brass has left a small Colorado Springs charter school rebuilding, some of its former leaders working on a new charter school and each side blaming the other.

"It was so disruptive," said Janet Nace, a former board member who was named principal at Pikes Peak Prep at a March 15 meeting. "I did a lot of damage control."

The situation was unclear to staff and unfortunate for students, said teacher Stephanie Bradshaw, who quit after the school year ended in May.

"The leadership was the best thing that ever happened to that school. They were getting results, but they were undermined," Bradshaw said.

A civil lawsuit filed in 4th Judicial District Court also bobs in the tumultuous wake.

Mike Miles, hired in June 2016 as chief executive officer to improve the K-12 charter school east of downtown, left his job Feb. 9.

Miles said he resigned but declined to elaborate.

The civil lawsuit, against Miles, alleges breach of contract, unlawful use of the company's time and resources and improperly forcing students "he found too difficult to manage out of the school," among other complaints.

Those claims are without merit, said Miles attorney Ian Kalmanowicz.

Under his tenure, Miles said, students "experienced the highest academic growth" in English and math in school history, as he outlined in a mid-year report to the board in January.

Miles is a familiar name in education. He led Harrison District 2, the region's most socio-economically diverse school district, for six years and instituted one of the state's first teacher pay-for-performance systems, which now includes principals and some administrators.

Miles gained a reputation as a controversial reformer for his no-nonsense approach to turning schools around.

He returned to Colorado Springs after serving as superintendent of Dallas Independent School District in Texas. Miles resigned from that job in June 2015, three years into a five-year contract.

He owns an education consulting company and last year became a member of the Colorado League of Charter Schools board.

Kevin Teasley, founder of Greater Education Opportunities Foundation, which manages Pikes Peak Prep, said Miles resigned the day before he was going to fire him.

"His reputation is well-deserved, in the sense that it's his way or the highway, so if you don't do things his way, you're not going to get along with him," Teasley said. "I didn't hire him to do things his way. I hired him to do things our way, and he was not doing those."

Board President Wayne Artis resigned at the Feb. 15 board meeting.

"I'm not blaming anyone; there's plenty of fault to go around," said Artis, a military retiree who teaches history at Pikes Peak Community College. "We've had constant turnover of board members, principals and teachers. If we couldn't figure this out with Mike Miles, then we couldn't figure it out. It was a muddle, and I couldn't find a way out of it."

Principal Zach Craddock and Assistant Principal Nicky Niewinski also left, though there is some dispute as to whether they were forced out.

Teasley said the two quit in protest over Miles' departure; Bradshaw said it seemed as if "their hands were tied."

Craddock said the issue is "water under the bridge," and he doesn't want to talk about it.

Craddock and Niewinski worked for Miles at Harrison D-2. Niewinski also followed him to Dallas. Both now are administrators at a new charter school Miles is opening next month in Aurora, the Academy for Advanced Learning.

Miles said Craddock and Niewinksi did "an outstanding job" at Pikes Peak Prep and were "one of the strongest teams" he had ever seen. They will have the same roles at the new school.

Bradshaw said she's one of several Pikes Peak Prep teachers switching schools to work for Miles in Aurora.

"He knows what he's doing," she said. "I'm going into my seventh year of teaching, and I grew a lot last year. He gave great guidance and a good structure. We took real data every day, so we knew exactly what the kids needed, and it showed in their test results."

Teasley, however, said "a lot of teachers resigned on the spot" after learning Miles had been hired at Pikes Peak Prep last summer.

"They did not want to work for Mike, so he had a challenge to hire new teachers," Teasley said.

A few teachers resigned under Miles' reign during last school year and have returned since he's been gone, including kindergarten teacher Jennifer Dickenson.

"The school has an amazing administration now and a wonderful program," she said. "It all definitely came around full circle."

Nace said while students' academic growth did improve under Miles, the price was too high.

"The authoritarian leadership was not an effective way of running this school," Nace said. "The staff, the families, the students didn't respond to it well."

Enrollment fell from 320 at the October 2016 pupil count to 280 in February, according to board documents.

Bradshaw said she initially was nervous about working under Miles, given his reputation, but describes the move as "the best decision of my career." Now, "I want to continue to learn under him," Bradshaw said. "He has high expectations, but that's what we need in education. He's not a dictator - he gives you a lot of freedom as long as you stay up to par."

At Pikes Peak Prep, Miles implemented such strategies as differentiating pay for teachers based on their roles, extending instructional days and keeping the school open 12½ hours a day to help families with child-care costs.

But Teasley said Miles didn't want to teach the school's signature Core Knowledge curriculum, limited how many college courses high school students could take, wanted to cut transportation and inflated enrollment numbers.

"It was not working out, and he knew it," Teasley said.

Teasley and his wife, Dana, the GEO Foundation's vice president, business manager and lawyer, filed the civil lawsuit against Miles March 17, alleging numerous complaints. A judge has dismissed two of the allegations: defamation in reference to emails Miles sent after he resigned, and intentionally interfering with the contract, determining that Miles was not "motivated solely to do harm to the school or company."

"There was no merit to those claims as pled," said Miles' attorney Kalmanowicz. Miles denies all the allegations, he said.

"We're vigorously defending the claims, and I'm certain he'll be vindicated of having done anything wrong," Kalmanowicz said. "It's a shame he has to defend himself."

The Teasleys want a jury trial. Teasley would not comment on the lawsuit.

The school opened in 2005 as 21st Century Charter School under the wing of Colorado Springs School District 11. Local developer and education choice proponent Steve Schuck was one of the founders. Two years later, officials requested the school be authorized through the state's Charter School Institute and left the umbrella of D-11. They asked to return in 2009, but D-11 denied the request, so it still has a contract with the state to operate.

Pikes Peak Prep is one of four charter schools managed by GEO Foundation, a California nonprofit headquartered in Indiana.

A "fundamental flaw," said former board member Artis, is that the management company appoints board members rather than having them elected by the school community. That has created a "fraught relationship" between administrators and the management company, he said.

"It's a strange chain of command, with GEO reporting to the board but having the authority to hire and fire board members," Artis said.

Fluctuating enrollment and persistent budget deficits have plagued the school for years, he said. Last October, an audit showed financial losses of $739,000, owed to GEO Foundation.

The school provides Core Knowledge curriculum, with mastery of basic subjects the basis for grades K-8, and college prep and free college courses for high school students.

Nace, who had taught at Pikes Peak Prep and competed against Miles for the top job last year, said she left her post at Pikes Peak Community College to return because she loves the school.

At Pikes Peak Prep, 76 percent of last year's 320 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, so the school receives extra federal money under the Title 1 program.

"Being a Title 1 school creates a different atmosphere - there's just something special about it," Nace said. "By and large, people say they want to teach because they want to make a difference. Teaching here makes that clearer."

Some kindergartners never held a crayon before their first day at Pikes Peak Prep, she said, and enter with language and knowledge deficiencies.

The school focuses on academic progression based on individual ability and provides a structured program that helps teachers develop skills and fosters career advancement, she said.

"There's none of that slipping through the cracks," Nace said. "There's growth through deliberate instruction."

Nace is working on reaching 350 students for the fall semester.

"There's a real sense of community here that's back," she said.

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