Montessori group sues district

Lawsuit seeks order to approve charter school application


— Steamboat Springs Montessori filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Steamboat Springs School District and the Steamboat Springs Board of Education in an attempt to enforce a state order to approve its charter school application.

The complaint, filed in Denver District Court by Steamboat Springs Montessori attorney Bill Bethke, seeks a court order for the Steamboat Springs School District to approve the Montessori charter school application and for the two sides to begin negotiating in good faith toward a charter school contract.

The suit is not an attempt to force the Montessori school to open, Bethke said.

"What we're really trying to do is enforce (the State Board of Education's) order," Bethke said. "We want the order to approve the application to be enforced, and we want good faith negotiations toward a school contract to begin."

The State Board ordered the Steamboat School Board to approve the Montessori charter school application at an April 9 hearing. The decision came after the Steamboat School Board twice denied the application, citing the proposed charter school's financial impact as its primary reason. The State Board's order to approve the application is, by law, final and not subject to appeal.

The Steamboat School Board, however, passed a resolution stating an unfunded mandate statute gives it the option to disregard the State Board's order.

School district attorney Chris Gdowski said he received a copy of the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon.

"It's what I had expected," Gdowski said of the suit. "It's not a surprise in terms of its content."

Steamboat School Board President Paul Fisher said he knew the lawsuit was filed but had not seen a copy of it by late Wednesday afternoon.

Regardless, the Steamboat School Board stands by its position, Fisher said.

"(The State Board of Education's order to approve the charter school application) is an unfunded mandate and we have the option under statute to opt out," Fisher said. "That's still our stance today."

Steamboat Springs Montessori President Jody Patten blasted that stance in a prepared statement released Wednesday.

"Their argument is ludicrous," Patten said in the statement. "Districts all over the state which have high tax bases and therefore little state funding still function within the law of Colorado."

Fisher said the Steamboat School Board will refrain from further comment until it has discussed the matter with its attorney.

"We need to see the lawsuit and seek counsel before we can say anything else," he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare what the school district is legally obligated to do in terms of following the State Board's order to approve the application.

The Colorado Supreme Court, in Booth v. Board of Education, already made that declaration, Bethke said.

"We think Booth answered those questions," he said. "We want the District Court to follow the ruling of the (Colorado) Supreme Court."

Gdowski said the Booth case differs from the one involving the Steamboat Springs School District because of the unfunded mandate statute. Because most of the Steamboat school district's revenue is generated by local property taxes, the Booth decision does not apply to this case, Gdowski said.

"We see these two laws in conflict," he said.

Both lawyers agreed it is difficult to gauge whether the case will go to trial. The school district has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the State Board was scheduled to discuss what, if any, action to take against the Steamboat Springs School District and its Board of Education during a work session Wednesday.

Phone calls to State Board spokesperson Karen Gerwitz were not immediately returned. The State Board holds its regularly scheduled meeting today, when it could take official action against the school district.

The State Board should join as co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district, Bethke said.

"We believe (its involvement) is important," he said. "We believe it's what should happen."

The lawsuit was filed in Denver, not Routt County, because the State Board makes its decisions in Denver and because the case directly involves those decisions, Bethke said.

Steamboat Springs Montessori would have preferred to handle the matter locally, but the actions of the School Board forced it to file suit, Patten said.

"The bottom line is that we have followed the law, and the State Board agreed, and yet the district refuses to play by the rules and wants to invent its own rules," she said in the statement. "We feel they've forced us into litigating when what we'd really like to do is iron out a contract with our own locally elected officials to open this school."

Approving a charter school application does not amount to opening a charter school. A contract must first be negotiated between the charter applicant and the local school board before a charter school can open.

This case has brought statewide attention to what many say are fundamental problems with the Colorado Charter Schools Act: its lack of an enforcement mechanism and its lack of alternative chartering authorities. Local school districts are the sole charter school authorizers under the law, although local decisions can be appealed to the State Board.


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