Our View: A commendable move

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Hats off to the Steamboat Springs School District and Steamboat Springs Montessori for reaching a compromise that avoids what could have proved to be a costly legal battle.

On Monday, the school district agreed to implement a Montessori strand at Strawberry Park Elementary School, and Steamboat Springs Montessori agreed to drop its lawsuit against the district.

In the past, we have supported the district's stand against a Montessori charter school, agreeing that another charter school was an unnecessary expense given the performance of our public schools, the small size of the district and the existing charter school in North Routt. The agreement reached Monday heads off many of those concerns. Foremost, the strand will cost the district an estimated $50,000 per year, a fraction of what creating a charter school would have cost.

The agreement has two other important components. First, it's for three years, providing a reasonable opportunity to measure the program objectively and decide whether it should be continued, expanded or terminated. Second, during the length of the agreement, the School Board will not consider implementing other educational programs.

Much of the credit for Monday's compromise goes to new Superintendent Donna Howell. Upon her arrival last summer, Howell saw what the School Board and Steamboat Springs Montessori had lost sight of -- a compromise.

The November election brought changes to the School Board and reaffirmed the community's opposition to the Montessori Charter School. Soon after, Howell brought the two sides together to begin the first real negotiations in months.

Steamboat Springs Montessori and the School Board should be complimented for being open-minded and flexible. Such flexibility didn't seem possible last summer, when the School Board essentially thumbed its nose at the governor and the State Board of Education.

It's important to note that circumstances moved the School Board and Steamboat Springs Montessori toward a settlement.

When the Montessori group broached the subject in the fall of 2001, the group asked the school district to approve a strand. But Montessori had a list of "non-negotiable" demands in its request. The school district responded with a one-sentence offer of a strand that wasn't really a strand at all.

The Montessori group was rigid in its demands at the outset because the group knew it could seek -- and likely would win approval for -- a charter school. The school district was inflexible because it had long before decided it would fight any charter school movement.

The State Board of Education twice ruled in Steamboat Montessori's favor, but those rulings proved to be hollow victories because the school district chose to ignore the state board's orders. Time became the school district's ally and Steamboat Springs Montessori's enemy.

But a change in superintendents and in the makeup of the School Board created a window of opportunity that both sides were smart to seize upon.

Colorado's Charter School Act needs to be reformed. As it stands, it is a law without teeth, as the Steamboat incident showed. But that reform should be more thoughtful and expansive than simply taking control away from local school boards, as state Rep. Keith King's bill before the Legislature would do.

Fortunately, Steamboat Springs no longer is at the mercy of such legislation, thanks to a reasonable compromise in which everyone involved -- the school district, Steamboat Springs Montessori and the taxpayers -- benefits.

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