Simla Elementary School kindergarteners head to the gym at the Big Sandy School Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. There were fewer than 20 children enrolled Simla's half-day kindergarten program this year. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat Colorado

Teachers have a lot at stake in what happens in their classrooms, but does that give them legal standing to challenge outside intervention in low-performing schools and districts?

That’s the first question a Denver district judge must answer in two lawsuits brought by teachers unions to block external managers from taking control of the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City and a struggling middle school in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado.

In both cases, the local school board entered into a contract with the for-profit education consulting firm MGT after the Colorado State Board of Education ordered them to seek outside help. The Adams 14 district and Risley International Academy of Innovation in Pueblo have spent eight years on a state watchlist for schools and districts with consistently low test scores.

These are the first state-ordered outside interventions under Colorado’s 2009 accountability law, and the outcome of these lawsuits will clarify the state’s authority to tell school districts what to do.

Judge David Goldberg heard back-to-back oral arguments Thursday in Denver District Court on whether teachers unions could challenge these state board decisions. He plans to issue a decision later. Opponents want the courts to block the work of external manager MGT from moving forward while the lawsuit is heard, but even these requests for a temporary stay first require the court to rule that teachers have standing to sue.

Representing the State Board of Education, First Assistant Attorney General Julie Tolleson noted that school board members — elected to represent Colorado’s school districts — had not challenged the legality of the state board decisions in court. She cited other cases in which the courts had found that disagreeing with a government decision did not give someone grounds to sue.

“The question does become: Whose fight is it anyway?” Tolleson told the court. “The core narrative alleges a state overreach against this local school district. The district didn’t object. Now the teachers union is trying to.”