Montessori application is back

School board will get another look at issue

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— For the second time in less than five months, the Steamboat Springs School Board will decide whether to approve a Montessori school charter application.

The Montessori Steering Committee will present an addendum to its original charter application, which was denied by the board in October, at tonight's school board study session.

"I'm really excited about the idea that (the Montessori school) can come to fruition," steering committee President Jody Patten said. "I couldn't guess right now what they're going to vote."

The school board may not have much of a choice when it comes to the vote, provided requirements are met by the application.

"The way the law's written, if they meet all the charter school requirements, then the school district must approve the application," Superintendent Cyndy Simms said.

The board was scheduled to make a decision on the application at its Feb. 10 board meeting, but the board and the steering committee agreed to postpone the decision until tonight.

The added time enabled the steering committee to continue to finalize important aspects of the application, such as enrollment and grant funding contingencies, Patten said.

The enrollment contingency will mandate that a certain number of older elementary students must enroll by a specific date in order for the school to serve fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. If the figure isn't reached, the school will originally serve kindergarten through third-grade students.

There is already widespread interest from parents, Patten said.

"We believe we have at least 90 people interested in enrollment, and we haven't even advertised," she said.

The grant-funding contingency will stipulate that the proposed school must achieve a certain level of grant funding to open. The committee has applied for more than $300,000 in grants, Patten said.

The school board denied the initial application in October. The board provided numerous reasons for the denial, including that the proposed school would divert district funds away from the other schools, thereby reducing the number and amount of programs and services available to the majority of district students.

The board's decision was appealed to the state Board of Education, which remanded the application back to the district for reconsideration.

Members of both the steering committee and the district board have met several times since the state board remanded the decision, and a charter school's impact on the district's budget has remained a top concern of the board's.

"They will have a financial impact (on the district)," Simms said. "The question is how great will that financial impact be?"

The steering committee has maintained that a Montessori school would represent only 1 percent of the district's budget.

"I think the district should be able to afford something that will serve up to 100 students initially," Patten said. "That's wise money spent by the district, in my opinion. We're not trying to hurt the district."

Based on projected five-year district budgets compiled by Finance Director Dale Mellor, a Montessori charter school would account for approximately one-third of the district's future deficit.

Mellor presented the projected budgets at the Feb. 3 board study session.

"These deficits are not going to be here totally because of the Montessori school," Mellor said at the study session. "There will be deficits anyway. Having a Montessori charter school kind of exacerbates the problem a little bit."

The financial impact would harm the district's ability to continue to be a leader in the state and across the nation in education reform, board President Paul Fisher said at the Feb. 3 study session.

If the board again denies the application, the steering committee will appeal that decision back to the state board.

"We've come this far; we feel that we'd need to do that," Patten said. "We have the law on our side. But I'd much rather see Steamboat deal with it rather than the state board."

According to the Colorado Charter Schools Act, if the state board finds that the local board's final decision to deny is "contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district, or community," the state board "shall remand such final decision to the local board with instructions to approve the charter application. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal."

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