District's legal expenses increase

Montessori battle among reasons

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Legal expenses for the Steamboat Springs School District increased nearly 700 percent last year, largely because of an ongoing battle over a proposed Montessori charter school and a feud between former superintendent Cyndy Simms and Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis.

The district paid attorneys nearly $72,000 for services provided during the 2002-03 school year, according to figures from Finance Director Dale Mellor. The district spent $11,000 for legal fees during the 2001-02 school year.

The district spent $20,000 to fight Steamboat Springs Montessori over its proposed charter application, an issue now headed to Routt County District Court. The district has earmarked about $40,000 for legal expenses in this year's budget, but Mellor said that figure could be low depending on what happens with the lawsuit.

"I'm hoping $40,000 would be sufficient for Montessori or whatever little things come up," Mellor said Thursday.

School Board member Tom Sharp said Thursday that he was unaware of the breakdown of legal expenses incurred last year but that much of the cost was caused by issues the district couldn't have predicted.

The School Board will continue to defend itself in the lawsuit brought against it by Steamboat Springs Montessori, Sharp said.

"You've got to remember who sued who," Sharp said. "The Montessori applicants sued the district. We will defend the decision of the (School) Board."

Other legal expenses included $15,000 to address the highly publicized conflict between Simms and DeVincentis. An attorney was hired by the district to defend Simms' performance evaluation of DeVincentis and for legal advice throughout the months-long ordeal, Mellor said.

An additional $10,000 was spent to deal with confidential student issues, and $1,500 went toward attorney fees for the district's sale of Steamboat Lake-area properties.

The remaining $24,000 paid for myriad minor legal items and expenses, Mellor said.

"There are so many little dinky things that really didn't have anything to do with the three main issues," Mellor said.

The district typically spends $11,000 to $19,000 each fiscal year in legal expenses. Mike Holloran, a Steamboat Springs-based attorney, and Chris Gdowski, a Boulder-based attorney, each charge about $125 an hour plus expenses for their work with the district, Mellor said.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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