North Routt charter school draws debate

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— The possibility of a charter school in north Routt County generated enough interest to fill a one-room schoolhouse Thursday night, as about 40 people showed up at the Moon Hill Schoolhouse to debate the intricacies of the proposed school's detailed application.

The proposed charter school would be on a three-year contract and would cap at 25 kindergarten to fifth-grade students. The school could potentially expand to include students as old as eighth-graders. The charter group is requesting 95 percent of per-pupil funding from the Steamboat Springs school district. The charter group also wants the district to cover its liability and insurance costs.

The school would offer traditional classes such as math and reading along with more place-based learning opportunities, in which the children could have more contact with their own community.

"We're trying to take the environment or community and make that a place of learning," said charter board member Cindy Gantick.

After charter board members Shaunna Watterson, Sandy Clark and Gantick spoke, the meeting broke into a spirited debate between Steamboat RE-2 District Superintendent Cyndy Simms and some audience members about the financing of the project.

Simms said that even if the district wants the project to go forward, it has to make sure it can finance it without necessarily taking away too much funding from the established city schools.

The district receives the bulk of its funding via a state-enforced finance formula that allocates the per-pupil dollars every year. This year, the district received $5,868 per pupil.

If the 25 proposed students were to move to the new charter school, the per-pupil funding for each of the departing children would travel to the charter school with them. That would mean a net loss of about $145,000, Simms said. If the students departing allowed the school to drop a teacher or two (who could possibly go over to the charter school), it would make more economic sense, she said. That way, losses in costs and revenues could even themselves out.

Members of the audience, however, said that the difficulties their children were experiencing due to the long bus rides and removal from the community should outweigh some of the supposed financial issues.

Some argued as well that because the school district may receive new students as of the 2001-2002 school year as it did this year, it would be able to recoup per-pupil revenue lost to the charter school through those incoming students.

The initial financial issues, however, may not prove to be a major roadblock if the school board is able to accept the long-range viability of the project, Simms said.

Simms said most other issues, such as curriculum, would likely be passable to the district, though the charter board is still looking for a site for the school. The Moon Hill Schoolhouse, an initial choice, proved to be too small.

One 12-year-old girl standing with her parents in the back of the room, however, put the argument in perspective when she noted that the time it takes her to get to and from the Steamboat Springs Middle School is affecting her ability to do her homework and get a good night's sleep.

"Our grades go down because we're tired," said Hallie Van Straaten, a seventh-grader at the middle school. Van Straaten said she would likely have gone to the charter school had she had the chance.

Her father, Bill Van Straaten, agreed with his daughter.

"These people here tonight feel that they are not getting the kind of education their children need," he said.

Sandy Clark, the financial consultant for the charter board, said her initial reason for looking into establishing a school in the area was to stop making the local children take the long bus ride into Steamboat. She said some of the children in the area need to get on the bus just after 7 a.m. to get to school on time. And just to get to the stop, some of the children have to be driven a number of miles.

The charter school application, initially presented to the Steamboat School Board in June 2000, has already been pushed back twice to allow for more time for the board to work through the particulars of the application. The charter board will present its final application for a school board vote on Jan. 29.

The next public forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Olympian Hall.

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