STEM School Highlands Ranch on Saturday received a five-year charter renewal from the Douglas County School Board, though the institution is subject to a two-year compliance review to determine whether it has addressed safety concerns heightened by last month’s fatal shooting.
Douglas County School Superintendent Thomas Tucker will review the school’s operations after two years. If he finds deficiencies at that time, Tucker could move to have the board shorten the school’s charter to three years.
The five-year charter renewal resolves a dispute that grew contentious following the May 7 shooting at the school that left one student dead and eight more wounded. Two STEM students have been arrested and charged in the attack.
The school board had proposed extending the school’s current charter, which it needs in order to remain open, for one year to work out safety concerns after the shooting.
STEM School administrators opposed the one-year extension.
Penelope Eucker, the school’s executive director, in one school board meeting argued that anything short of a five-year charter renewal could signal the “death knell” for the school. Bond-rating agencies would see a shorter charter term as a sign of weakness and could be inclined to increase the school’s cost to refinance debt by as much as $6 million, she said.
The school board had balked at a five-year charter renewal even before the shooting. School board members raised concerns that ranged from how STEM conducts threat assessments to whether plans by STEM to build 100 schools nationwide would use per-pupil money intended for Douglas County students.
How special education students are treated also had become contentious, with several parents of STEM students complaining that the school was not complying with federal student disability laws.
The school board in January approved a three-year charter renewal, with the provision that certain issues would be addressed. STEM appealed to the Colorado Board of Education in an effort to secure a five-year renewal. The school and the Douglas County School Board agreed to set aside the appeal and entered into dispute-resolution negotiations.
The shooting interrupted those negotiations, setting the school’s charter up for termination at the end of June. When the school board moved to consider extending the charter for just one year to give time to resolve the dispute, many parents and students expressed dismay.
A crowd of more than 100 parents and students showed up at one school board meeting to protest and push for a five-year charter renewal.
The five-year renewal represents a compromise of sorts. The charter contract includes language that requires STEM School to pay special attention to threat-assessment training for staff at the school.
It also requires the school to comply with the district’s policies regarding financing and how special education students are treated. If the school is out of compliance with those terms at the two-year mark, the Douglas County superintendent can move to shorten the charter.
“It would be irresponsible for us to deliver a contract so vague that it would be left up to misinterpretations,” said Douglas County School Board President David Ray.