Board approves Montessori

Decision mandates charter school be negotiated


— The Steamboat Springs School District was ordered Wednesday to accept a Montessori charter school application, by a 5-2 vote of the Colorado Board of Education.

The board's decision mandates the district and the Steamboat Springs Montessori Steering Committee to negotiate a charter school contract in good faith, state board Chairman Randy DeHoff said.

"The second remand orders the school district to approve the application," DeHoff said. "That begins the contract negotiation process."

The decision brings to an end a seven-month process during which the Steamboat Springs Board of Education twice denied the Montessori Steering Committee's charter school application.

"I'm happy for all the students that stand to benefit from this choice," Montessori Steering Committee President Jody Patten said. "I think it's unfortunate we had to go to the state level in order to open a school. I certainly am willing to put aside the discord and work toward opening a school that I hope the district will one day embrace."

While the state board's decision brought smiles to the faces of the numerous pro-Montessori members in the audience, the reaction was quite different on the opposite side of the board's Denver hearing room.

"Disappointment," Steamboat board President Paul Fisher said when describing his reaction to the decision.

"This (decision) will have a significant impact on the 1,800 other kids in the district," Superintendent Cyndy Simms said. "It's very unfortunate the state Board of Education would make that choice."

The state board's debate centered on two main issues: the charter school's financial impact on the district and a policy question involving educational choice.

The Montessori charter school will have an impact of $2 million to $3 million over the life of the charter contract, School District attorney Chris Gdowski said. The district estimated a $175,000 financial impact in the school's first year of operation, an estimate Gdowski later said was overstated.

Montessori Steering Committee attorney Bill Bethke said the financial impact would be significantly less than the district estimated, primarily because of reduced staffing needs within the district as Montessori charter school enrollment increases.

Furthermore, when compared to the district's $11 million budget, any financial impact will be minimal, Bethke said.

Decreasing district enrollment also also contribute to the charter school's financial impact, Gdowski said. That point was refuted by DeHoff, who questioned the reliability of enrollment projections when this year's district enrollment was 30 students more than the number of students projected by the district's demographer.

The hearing also focused on school choice, a main driving force behind the Colorado Charter Schools Act.

A Steamboat Springs Montessori school will represent the first opportunity for educational choice in the Steamboat Springs School District, a district that appears to say it doesn't need any choice, Bethke said.

"Clearly that's not the policy of the state of Colorado," Bethke said.

A survey conducted by the Montessori Steering Committee indicates parents of students at Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools want a Montessori choice, Bethke said.

Several state board members agreed.

"I think this can be a positive and constructive choice to the parents in the community. I think it would be against the best interests of the community" to not provide a choice, state board Vice Chairman Jared Polis said.

While Gdowski acknowledged the desire of some parents to have a Montessori choice, he told the state board it needed to weigh that interest against the financial impact to the district in a time of necessary budget cuts and the state's financial situation.

Ultimately, the majority of the state board found the financial impact less weighty than providing educational choice in Steamboat.

"I don't believe (a Montessori school) will cause the district harm," Polis said. "The Montessori method is a different method of education. It's not necessarily one that will get you higher CSAP scores, but certainly I think this kind of method benefits some kids tremendously."

Additionally, the majority of the state board found that the Montessori Steering Committee met the conditions of the board's remand letter, which was issued to the district and the steering committee following a first appeal heard by the state board in January.

"Clearly, in the revised application, the applicants met the conditions of the remand," DeHoff said. "When I came into this (hearing), I was on the fence. The arguments I heard persuaded me the district was not negotiating in good faith."

Montessori Steering Committee members were clearly pleased with the board's ruling:

"It's pretty exciting to get this far," David Patterson said. "I'm really surprised. A 5-2 vote is much stronger that the 4-3 vote from the last (state board hearing)."

"The decision was great to hear," Tony Requist said. "It really seemed (the state board) considered the issues quite a bit. I'm happy we won."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

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