Owens weighs in on charter

Governor, State Board of Education voice support for Montessori lawsuit

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Gov. Bill Owens and State Treasurer Mike Coffman joined the State Board of Education Thursday in support of a lawsuit filed against the Steamboat Springs School District over its refusal to approve a Montessori charter school application.

Owens, in a letter sent to Coffman on Thursday, called the school district's stance "unacceptable" and said he is "deeply concerned about the school district's refusal to grant the charter."

The letter was in response to a request made by Coffman to withhold state revenue from the Steamboat Springs School District. The request sought to divert state money from the school district directly to the proposed Montessori charter school.

Though the school district receives most of its revenue through local property taxes, about $600,000 comes in the form of state equalization payments, Coffman said.

Coffman's request was an attempt to end the standoff between the district and the charter applicants, he said.

"I'm sympathetic to the families trying to start the charter," Coffman said. "I think the district is clearly violating state law. "

Owens rejected Coffman's request Thursday afternoon on legal grounds.

"Lawyers from my General Counsel's office and the Attorney General's office have advised me that I do not have the power to unilaterally order that funds be withheld from a school district that fails to comply with a State Board of Education directive," Owens wrote in a response to Coffman's request.

The governor, however, supports the lawsuit brought against the school district by Steamboat Springs Montessori, Owens' press secretary, Dan Hopkins, said.

"The governor is a strong believer in charter schools and certainly would like to see this charter school in Steamboat Springs (open)," Hopkins said. "There appears to be no legal way to withhold funds. At this point, the governor believes the lawsuit is the best means (to open the school). Court seems to be the only option at this point."

"Seeking the involvement of the courts is the proper route to ensure that the charter is granted and that the law is enforced," Owens wrote in his letter.

Owens believes the court will rule in favor of the charter school, Hopkins said.

Also Thursday, the State Board unanimously approved a resolution to file an amicus curiae brief in Denver District Court on behalf of the Montessori lawsuit.

Amicus curiae, which means "friend of the court" in Latin, is a person or people who ask for permission to intervene in a case in which they are neither a plaintiff nor defendant.

The brief will discuss the court's need to enforce the State Board's order to approve the Montessori charter school application and the importance of adhering to the State Board's authority, State Board spokesperson Karen Gerwitz said.

"The info (in the brief) will support the plaintiff's case, but we're not a party to the case," Gerwitz said.

The State Board discussed the possibility of joining Steamboat Springs Montessori as a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit but ultimately decided against it, Gerwitz said.

"The case really is between the charter school and the district," Gerwitz said. "The (State) Board actually felt it was more symbolic to file an amicus brief. We weighed our options and this is the one the board felt was best."

Steamboat Springs Montessori filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court on Wednesday against the Steamboat Springs School District and the Steamboat Springs Board of Education.

Despite a State Board order to approve the Montessori charter school application, the Steamboat School Board has refused to do so. The School Board maintains a state unfunded mandate law gives it the option to not obey the State Board's order.

The conflict between the charter applicants and the School Board could be the catalyst for reform to the Colorado Charter Schools Act, a law that authorizes the formation of publicly funded alternative schools.

Coffman said he believes the law will change as a direct result of the Steamboat conflict.

"I think you're going to see a movement in the next legislative session to do one of two things: either give me the authority to withhold equalization payments or property taxes and divert them to charter schools or (the creation) of an alternative chartering body," Coffman said. "I think one of those things will occur, without question."

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