State rules against district

Montessori school should not have been denied

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— The Colorado Board of Education ruled Wednesday that the Steamboat Springs School District did not serve in the best interests of its pupils, school district or the community when it denied a Montessori charter school application in October.

The state school board's decision, which came by way of a 4-3 vote, followed much debate over the ability of the proposed charter school to succeed financially. Ultimately, the majority of the board decided the Montessori Steering Committee's proposed budget was not flawed to the extent its application should be denied.

"I think the best thing to do for the community and the parents is to remand it to the district," state board chairman Randy DeHoff said. Denying the appeal would destroy any chance for parents who want a Montessori school, DeHoff said.

The ruling does not grant the Montessori Steering Committee its proposed school. Rather, the state board issued a remand, which means the school district must reconsider its denial. The state board will give the Steamboat school district its specific recommendations in a letter of remand, which it will issue to the district in the next couple of days. The district will then have 30 days to reach a decision.

"(We're) very happy," Montessori Steering Committee president Jody Patten said. "I think we can come up with a contingency budget to make everyone comfortable. I really do."

Superintendent Cyndy Simms said the two sides will be able to work cooperatively.

"(The Montessori committee members) care very much about the children in our community, as do we," Simms said. "It will be a cooperative conversation."

Chris Gdowski, the district's Denver-based attorney, argued the board of education did not have jurisdiction over the appeal because the application essentially involves a private-to-public school conversion, which is an issue for the state court system.

The district contends that the director of the Yampa Valley Montessori Education Center, a private preschool in Steamboat Springs, would shut down her school if the Montessori charter is granted and that many of the charter school's students will be transferred from the private preschool.

Charter schools can't be formed in an attempt to convert an existing private school into a public school, according to the Colorado Charter Schools Act.

The majority of the school board disagreed with the district's conversion argument, despite a motion by board member Evie Hudak to dismiss the appeal because of jurisdictional issues.

Rather, financial concerns became the focus of the charter school application, particularly the availability of start-up funds for the school.

"I have grave concerns about the operating funds available to start this school," board member Pamela Suckla said. "I do not see this (school) being successful at this time."

Board member Jared Polis said the proposed school's budget might be optimistic, but it wasn't unrealistic.

"I don't see any red flags that lead me to believe this charter school would fail," Polis said.

The financial impact of the school on the school district as a whole also was a point of contention for the district.

"There will be impacts (on the district)," DeHoff said. "(But) I have not found enough evidence at this point to find for the district that it's going to be that big of an impact."

The school district probably will wait until it receives the remand letter before it decides its next course of action, district attorney Gdowski said. The board has two options, he explained:

The first is to sit down with the Montessori Steering Committee and work through their differences. If the school district still refuses to accept the charter application, and if the Montessori committee again appeals that refusal, the state board would issue a final ruling on the application.

The second option is to appeal Wednesday's state board decision because of the jurisdictional issue, Gdowski said.

"I don't know whether it's an option this (Steamboat Springs School District) board is interested in," Gdowski said.

Bill Bethke, the attorney representing the Montessori Steering Committee, said the committee is ready to sit down and work out the particulars.

"We'd like to go back and talk (with the school district)," Bethke said. "We know the financial concerns are going to have to be addressed."

The Denver hearing was attended by School Board President Paul Fisher, board member Tami Havener, Superintendent Cyndy Simms, finance director Dale Mellor and members of the Montessori Steering Committee.

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