Briefing process ends in Montessori lawsuit

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— The briefings process in a lawsuit filed against the Steamboat Springs School District by a group seeking a Montessori charter school is over, but a decision in the case likely is still months away.

The school district submitted a motion last week to the Routt County District Court reaffirming its request that the lawsuit be dismissed.

That motion for dismissal rests on the district's belief that the court doesn't have the authority to force negotiation of a charter school contract, as Steamboat Springs Montessori seeks in the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in July after the Steamboat Springs School Board twice rejected the Montessori group's charter school application. The School Board also refused to approve the application after the State Board of Education ordered it to do so.

The School Board's defense largely relies on its position that the state's unfunded mandate law allows the district the option of not following state orders when those orders will cost the district additional money not provided by the state.

School district briefings argue that the nature of the unfunded mandate statute and the wording of the State Board's order makes the School Board's decision not to approve the charter application a discretionary one.

But Steamboat Springs Montessori argues that because the lawsuit seeks only a court order for the district to approve the Montessori charter school application and for the two sides to begin negotiating in good faith toward a charter school contract, any potential cost of the school and whether those costs are paid for by the state are moot points until negotiations begin.

"In effect, it's premature," Bill Bethke, attorney for Steamboat Springs Montessori, said of the School Board's defense. "They're ahead of the game. What the State Board of Education ordered them to do is to approve the charter application."

"Over and over again, the district complains that opening the school will cost some amount of money," reads a brief filed by Steamboat Springs Montessori on Dec. 15. "No doubt. We are not claiming that educational choice has no cost. But this case is not about opening the school. This case is about approval of the charter."

Negotiations may or may not result in an agreement to open the school, the brief continues.

Furthermore, Steamboat Springs Montessori argues, the district's case demands determination of a legal issue based on how much money the charter school will cost when neither side can accurately gauge what that cost may be.

With the briefings process now over, Routt County Judge Michael O'Hara can make a decision based on court filings or he may request oral arguments from both sides, Bethke and Richard Lyons, the school district's attorney, said on Monday.

"I'm assuming the judge will want to hear arguments on this," Bethke said.

O'Hara is out of town this week and has a full docket the following week, a Routt County Combined Court clerk said on Monday.


-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboat.com

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