Charter school bill amended

Steamboat district would be exempted because of its size

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Small school districts such as Steamboat Springs would be exempted from a proposed charter school bill under an amendment offered Monday by state Rep. Al White.

Two weeks ago, the House Education Committee approved a charter school bill proposed by Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, that would allow charter school applicants to seek approval from a state chartering authority if they were rejected by their local school board.

By providing an alternate route to charter applicants, the bill was in part an attempt to prevent districts such as Steamboat Springs from ignoring State Board of Education orders and refusing to approve new charter schools.

But the amendment proposed by White, R-Winter Park, will exclude districts with fewer than 3,000 students from being subject to that provision of the bill because of the financial impact a charter school would have in smaller school districts. The Steamboat Springs School District, which has about 1,900 students, has argued against a Montessori charter school primarily because of the financial impact it says that school would create.

School Board President Paula Stephenson said Tuesday she was happy to see approval for White's amendment.

"(White) has been one of the strongest advocates for rural public education in Colorado," Stephenson said. "He's been very supportive of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, and I know he's very in touch with the concerns we have."

The Steamboat School Board twice rejected a Montessori charter school application, and both times the State Board ruled against the school district. The School Board, however, refused to approve the application and cited an unfunded mandate law as its defense. All along, the School Board has maintained its belief the financial impact of a charter school will negatively impact district programs for the students attending its traditional schools.

The dispute is now being settled in court. Steamboat Springs Montessori filed a lawsuit against the district last year.

"I'm a proponent of charter schools, there's no doubt about that," White said Tuesday. However, White said he recognizes the serious financial impact charter schools can have on smaller school districts. Plus, he thinks the legislature should let the court system set the precedent.

"The Steamboat Springs situation is being decided by the courts," White said. "I think there's no need for the legislature to interfere with that process."

Steamboat Springs Montessori member Jody Patten expressed frustration with White's amendment.

"I think it's disappointing, without a doubt," Patten said. "I personally don't understand it because I think what's clear from the State Board is that when they reviewed our application they looked at the financial impact and felt it could be managed."

Steamboat Springs Montessori has always been willing to work with the district to help soften any financial impact through measures such as enrollment caps, Patten said.

"I don't think it will stand," Patten said of the amended bill. "I think we'll see legislation proposed where charters rejected by a district but supported by the State Board can receive funding directly from the State Board. It may be a very different story at the end of the (legislative) session."

The amended bill must go through the appropriations committee to determine its financial impact, then onto the House floor, where it must be approved on third reading before heading to the Senate, where the process begins anew, White said.

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