Not much gray area in charter school debate

The charter school debate is an important and worthy one with intelligent arguments and knowledgeable, passionate people on both sides of the issue. This makes it all the more disappointing that the Steamboat Springs School Board, led by President Paul Fisher, feels it must distort the truth to fight against establishment of Steamboat Springs Montessori Charter School. While differing opinions are expected, there are several facts where there is no debate, no gray area, nothing open for interpretation.

These points include:

n A fiscally sound budget.

Steamboat Springs Montessori always has presented a sound and balanced budget. The State Board of Education declared our budget to be sound and complimented us on its completeness.

At the request of the School Board, we submitted more than 12 budgets covering various scenarios. One of these scenarios that was specifically requested by our local School Board was the extremely unlikely case of a 2.4 percent reduction in per-pupil funding.

In this scenario, one portion of our budget showed a very slight deficit, while the overall budget was balanced. This scenario was so unlikely that Dale Mellor, school district finance director, said in the next public School Board meeting that it was not a realistic scenario and that the school district itself did not plan for this contingency. In reality, the per-pupil funding increased 2.1 percent for the year.

Every budget submitted by Steamboat Springs Montessori, and specifically the budget submitted with the final Steamboat Springs Montessori Charter School application, shows a sound fiscal endeavor. You are invited to view the application at the school district office or by contacting Steamboat Springs Montessori.

n Public money to public programs.

Not one of the more than 12 budgets submitted ever showed public money subsidizing the preschool portion of Steamboat Springs Montessori. Although the School Board members publicly stated that they understood there was no subsidy, they appear to be confused about how expenses are allocated between preschool and elementary students (based on the number of hours a student spends in school and preschoolers are in school for fewer hours per day than elementary students). This was explained to the School Board in School Board meetings. The State Board of Education members quickly understood that there was no subsidy, once again voting to support the charter school.

n Legal Charter Organization.

The Colorado Charter School Act forbids the conversion of an existing private school to a charter school. Yampa Valley Montessori is a private Montessori school serving 3- to 6-year-olds (preschool and kindergarten students) and is the only Montessori school in Routt County.

The School Board argued unsuccessfully to the State Board of Education that Steamboat Springs Montessori Charter School is an "illegal conversion" of Yampa Valley Montessori. It lost immediately and decisively for these reasons:

-- The charter school will not use the facility currently used by the private school.

-- The charter school will not use any of the existing materials of the private school.

-- The charter school does not guarantee employment to any of the current staff of the private school.

-- The charter school does not guarantee admission to current students of the private school.

-- The charter school contains elementary grades not currently served by the private school.

There are two things that the charter school and the private school share:

-- The Montessori method (used by more than 5,000 schools nationwide).

-- The fact that many of the organizers of the charter school have children attending the private school, as is to be expected because it is the only Montessori education available in the county.

Many communities that have Montessori charter schools also have private Montessori schools.

n Budget Impact.

There is a legitimate argument about the exact impact the charter school would have on the district budget, but Paul Fisher uses a number ($250,000) that he knows to be so unrealistically high that it can only be described as deliberately misleading.

The charter school's budget shows a total of $237,000 of district funding the first year. What Fisher does not mention, even though it was discussed in numerous School Board meetings and was used in the district's own projections at the time, is that about 40 percent of this money represents students who would otherwise not be in the public schools, and thus is additional money that the district would receive only if the charter exists.

Further, about 10 percent of the money would go right back to the district to pay for special education services -- the same money going for the same services provided by the same people to the same students. Thus, the range in which there is room for honest debate of the first year budgetary impact is up to $118,500 -- less that 1 percent of the district's total budget.

n Excellence in Education.

Paul Fisher states that we support the position that "choice should be imposed by the state even if it means diminishing excellence in education for the majority." We never said this, and we do not believe this.

We believe, as the research shows, that choice makes the educational system better for all students in the district. Fisher has heard us state this position and the reasoning behind it many times.

The School Board and Fisher have admitted publicly on numerous occasions that they know the facts about these points, yet they continue to distort the truth. We do not venture to guess their motivations for this; we are just disheartened and disappointed that public officials would act this way.

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