Legislature may back charter schools

— After getting some face time with the governor at the Lincoln's Day Dinner on Feb. 19, the members of the north Routt charter school board may be getting some help from the state to purchase or build a new school.

Only one month after charter board members Shaunna Watterson and Sandy Clark spoke to Gov. Bill Owens about a bill that would give charter schools money for capital needs on a per-pupil basis that could amount to more than $6,000 of extra money, that bill has made it out of the education committee on Mar. 14 and moved on to the house appropriations committee.

The money for the charter schools would come out of the Education Fund set up by Amendment 23, which was passed by voters last November.

Owens announced his intentions to support the capital construction funding, which he said he thinks would allow charter schools to build "safe and modern classrooms," to the Steamboat Today in February.

Currently charter schools receive per-pupil money from their school districts for each student that moves from the existing district schools to the charter school. But, while the district receives money earmarked for capital construction projects, charter schools do not receive that money. That means the schools have to rely on private donations, grants and loans to fund their capital improvements or, as in the case of the north Routt school, to build or pay for the school itself.

Under the proposed bill (HB 1277), which is being carried by House Speaker Doug Dean, R-Colorado Springs, charter schools would be eligible for 55 percent of the statewide average in terms of per pupil bond revenue. The schools would have to put aside at least 3 percent of their budgets for capital needs to be eligible for the money. The allocation could amount to about $319 per charter-school pupil next year and even more the year after, according to the Colorado Association of School Boards.

With approximately 20 students planning to enter the Moonhill School house in the fall, that could amount to about $6,380. The Colorado Association of School Boards is opposed to the charter school financing proposal, claiming it puts the interests of the few over the interests of the many.

Because only about 3 percent of Colorado's children attend charter schools, the money would purportedly take away from the other 97 percent who could be using it for other needs.

The Steamboat School Board has not yet taken a stance one way or the other on the bill, said board member Paul Fisher.

The north Routt charter school will almost invariably begin the school year on Sept. 7 in the Moonhill Schoolhouse just south of Clark. The board members, however, are on a mission to find or build a bigger facility.

One of the north Routt board members is actually closely connected to a legislator in Denver who is supporting this bill. State Rep. Tom Plant D-Nederland, the brother of board member Barb Lynn, has been pushing for more funding for charter schools' capital needs.

Lynn said she helped her brother understand the issue, but he is not advocating specifically for her school.

Watterson added that State Rep. Al White R-Winter Park, who voted for the bill while it was in the education committee, has been very supportive of the bill.

"It would be instrumental we would be able to have cash for a downpayment and pull it off possibly by this fall," Lynn said.

The school has already received donations that it may be able to use toward a new school, including a direct $20,000 grant and a $20,000 challenge grant, which has already been met almost halfway, Lynn said.

Watterson said the school would probably be best off buying an existing facility and remodelling, though it may need to buy land and construct a new building.

The school is also planning a fundraiser on Mar. 31 with an auctioneer and a number of donated works of art.

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