Charter law won't apply here

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A new law that allows groups seeking charter schools to bypass their local school districts and ask for state approval won't apply to Steamboat Springs, much to the chagrin of charter school advocates.

In June, Gov. Bill Owens signed into law House Bill 1362, which created the State Charter Institute. The institute, a division of the Department of Education, has the authority to evaluate and approve charter school applications. Schools set up by the institute are independent of the local school district.

Owens and others called for the creation of an alternative chartering authority in response to some school districts -- including the Steamboat Springs School District -- that either imposed moratoriums on the number of charter schools they would allow or refused to approve charter applications.

And while the law will allow groups in areas such as Boulder, where the district enacted a moratorium on charter schools, to seek approval from the State Charter Institute, a provision in the law will prevent parents in the Steamboat area from being able to do the same.

According to the legislation, districts with fewer than 3,000 students can retain exclusive chartering authority within their boundaries. The Steamboat Springs School District, which has fewer than 2,000 students, sent a resolution to the Department of Education this month requesting to retain that authority.

Districts with more than 3,000 students can apply for exclusive chartering authority if they meet certain criteria, including the absence of a district-imposed moratorium on charter schools and compliance with valid orders of the State Board of Education. It's unlikely the Steamboat Springs School District would be granted exclusive authority if it had more than 3,000 students.

"We're pleased the provision for (districts with) under 3,000 students is applicable to us," Steamboat Superintendent Donna Howell said this week. She admitted district officials were concerned legislation would "single us out" in light of the well-publicized feud between the district and a group of local parents who sought the creation of a Montessori charter school.

Howell said legislators realized the significant effect a charter school can have on smaller districts and thus incorporated the provision into the law.

"It's a size issue, and that's been the issue for this district," she said.

But Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, doesn't buy it.

"I completely discount the argument behind it," Griffin said Friday. "Small districts were given special treatment under the legislation. It's very unfortunate, and I don't think it's appropriate."

What's most disturbing, Griffin said, is that Steamboat is one of the districts that can take advantage of the enrollment provision. "Ironically the school district most commonly cited as a scofflaw district with a bad attitude ends up being treated differently," he said.

In the past two years, the Steamboat Springs School District repeatedly refused to obey a State Board of Education order to approve a Montessori charter school application. The district used an unfunded mandate law as its defense. Eventually the district agreed to open a Montessori strand in one of its elementary schools. The compromise resulted in the Montessori applicants withdrawing a lawsuit they had filed against the school district.

The district's primary argument against approving the Montessori charter application was the financial effect the school would have on the rest of the district.

Local groups that wish to apply for a charter can still do so through the school district. Charter applicants denied by the Steamboat School Board can appeal to the State Board of Education under the existing provisions of the Colorado Charter School Act.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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