Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Springs School District will likely find itself in court over a resolution refusing to follow a state order to approve a Montessori charter school application, the attorney representing the Montessori Steering Committee said last week.
But who will instigate legal action is unclear, as is when such action might be taken.
At its meeting last week, the Steamboat Springs School Board passed a resolution stating a state Board of Education mandate to approve the Montessori charter school application is optional under Colorado law.
In the one-page resolution, the School Board cited Colorado revised statute 29-1-304.5, which states no state agencies can evoke a mandate on a local government "unless the state provides additional moneys to reimburse such local government for the costs of such new state mandate. ... In the event that such additional moneys for reimbursement are not provided, such mandate or increased level of service for an existing state mandate shall be optional on the part of the local government."
The statute was passed prior to the Colorado Charter Schools Act, Montessori attorney Bill Bethke said. The notion that a law passed before a more recent law takes precedent over the newer law is "unfounded to bizarre," Bethke said.
"This is an argument that has been raised before and has not been successful in court to this date," Bethke said. "If these two statutes are inconsistent, then the more recent law applies. (The School Board) is refusing to follow an order of the state board."
Bethke said the state Board of Education likely would take the issue to court. The Montessori Steering Committee could join the state in any legal action, he said.
"We'll see if it's possible to coordinate with them. That's just sensible," Bethke said.
But Colorado Commissioner of Education William Moloney said the state Board of Education has limited authority to pursue any court action against the Steamboat Springs School District.
"There is a viewpoint emerging that has statewide applications," Moloney said. "It's not an issue of Steamboat Springs versus the state Board of Education. The issue is the proper relationship and understanding of the laws of Colorado and the actions of a local school district."
The state Board of Education has a narrowly defined role in the case, Moloney said. The state board's involvement ended after it issued its second appeal ordering the local district to approve the charter application, he said.
Colorado's Office of the Attorney General represents and advises the state Board of Education and the Department of Education.
Regardless of what legal action, if any, is taken in the coming weeks and months, a Steamboat Springs Montessori charter school probably will not open in the fall, Bethke said.
If the matter does go to court, it could be a multi-year process involving district courts, courts of appeal and possibly even the Colorado Supreme Court, Bethke said.
"The amount of time it might take in a trial court is difficult to predict," Bethke said.
School Board President Paul Fisher said any district response to legal action will depend on what action is taken.
He would not speculate whether the district would be willing to defend its resolution in court.
The School Board, Fisher said, is simply using its option under Colorado law to refuse a mandate that is not funded by additional state money.
On April 9, the state Board of Education, on second appeal from the Montessori Steering Committee, ordered the Steamboat Springs School Board to approve a charter school application seeking to open a publicly funded Steamboat Springs Montessori school.
In its ruling, the state Board of Education determined the Steamboat School Board had not acted in the best interests of the pupils, school district and community.
The ruling, however, did not spark contract negotiations between the school district and the Montessori Steering Committee. A contract between the two parties is needed for the school to open.