Charter group to sue district

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The attorney for the Steamboat Springs Montessori Steering Committee is preparing to file a lawsuit in District Court against the Steamboat Springs School District on behalf of his clients.

Denver-based attorney Bill Bethke said the complaint could be filed within the next two weeks. Whether the complaint is filed in Denver District Court or in Routt County is undecided, Bethke said.

The reasons for the complaint, however, are clear, he said.

"We're trying to enforce the order of the State (Board of Education)," Bethke said Tuesday. "This issue will be pretty straightforward -- whether the (school) district had the authority to do what it did or whether the state board had the authority to do what it did."

How the civil case could play out in court -- if it gets that far -- is uncertain, Bethke said.

The Colorado State Board of Education might throw its support behind the Montessori group, State Board Chairman Randy DeHoff said Tuesday.

During its recent three-day retreat in Breckenridge, the state board met in executive session to discuss how to respond to the Steamboat Springs Board of Education's refusal to approve the Montessori charter application.

"We did agree that we do view this as a direct challenge to our authority," DeHoff said. "We are going to respond. The question is how."

If the Montessori applicants file a lawsuit, the state board will call a special meeting to discuss its options, DeHoff said. Options include participating in the Montessori applicants' lawsuit, DeHoff said. Attorneys representing the state board are investigating all legal options, he said.

Steamboat School Board President Paul Fisher said he would not comment on the possibility of legal action against the district or on how the board will respond to any legal action until he sees official notification of a lawsuit.

Montessori Steering Committee President Jody Patten said she would welcome state board support in any legal action against the district.

"We would be glad to have them support us, and we fully expect they'd want to enforce their authority in the process," Patten said. "We're prepared to do the long-term legal fight. It will take at least a year, we think, and we have the money and the legal assistance."

Still, Patten said she wishes the situation didn't have to involve the courts. But the Steamboat School Board hasn't left the applicants many options, she said.

"We need to (file a complaint)," Patten said. "We believe (the Steamboat School Board) is in violation of state law. But if we were to negotiate some kind of settlement, that suit would go away."

The Montessori applicants are open to discussing creative solutions with the district, Patten said. Solutions could involve looking at whether mill levy monies collected as part of the overall per-pupil revenue amount could be given back to the district to help soften the impact of a Montessori charter school, she said.

"That's what we're interested in discussing with the district, those kinds of negotiations," Patten said. "There might be a way to make (approving the charter school) more palatable to the district. We're going to try to come up with some sort of offer in writing for the district."

Regardless, the charter school will not be able to open in the fall, Patten said.

The Steamboat School Board twice rejected the Montessori charter school application. Both rejections were appealed by the applicants to the state board, which twice ruled in favor of the Montessori group. Under the provisions of the Colorado Charter Schools Act, a state board decision on second appeal is final and not subject to additional appeal.

However, the Steamboat School Board, citing a state unfunded-mandate law, ruled the state board's order for the district to approve the charter application is optional.

The Steamboat School Board's ruling caught the attention of lawmakers and charter school advocates from across the state.

The Steamboat School Board repeatedly has stated that the financial impact a Montessori charter school would have on the majority of district students is unacceptable.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools intended to create innovative and alternative educational choices for students and parents. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, receive funding through a per-pupil revenue dollar amount calculated by the state's school finance formula.

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