Charter suit will stay local

Judge orders Montessori case to be heard in Routt County

— A lawsuit filed by Steamboat Springs Montessori against the Steamboat Springs School District will be heard in Routt County, according to an order by Denver District Judge Shelley Gilman.

A copy of Gilman's order was mailed Monday to attorneys representing both sides in the dispute over a charter school application, said Gina Even, a clerk in Gilman's Denver office. The Steamboat Today couldn't immediately obtain a copy of the order.

The case was originally scheduled to be heard in Denver, where the suit was filed on July 9. But the school district requested a change of venue to Routt County, where it says decisions that influenced the lawsuit, such as the School Board's decisions to deny the Montessori charter school application, took place. The district also argued in its change-of-venue motion that most potential witnesses and people affected by the outcome of the suit live in Routt County, not Denver.

In August, Steamboat Springs Montessori submitted a brief to the court rebutting the district's motion, apparently to no avail.

Steamboat Springs Montessori attorney Bill Bethke downplayed the significance of Gilman's ruling.

"I think our position all along was that it would be appropriate to be heard in either venue," Bethke said Monday. "But we're happy to hear it in Routt County. We just thought it would be more convenient to hear it (in Denver)."

Steamboat Springs School District attorney Chris Gdowski was out of his office Monday and could not be reached for comment. School Board President Paul Fisher said he was pleased with the decision.

"We requested (the change of venue) because we felt it was appropriate, as did the judge, apparently," Fisher said.

Steamboat Springs Montessori filed the lawsuit after the School Board twice denied its charter school application and refused to follow a state Board of Education ruling that it accept the application. The School Board says the order from the State Board is an unfunded mandate and thus doesn't have to be obeyed.

The case has generated interest statewide, particularly among lawmakers and state officials concerned about problems with the Colorado Charter Schools Act. Charter schools are alternative public schools funded by tax dollars. Like all state public schools, charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis.

At a meeting with Routt County commissioners Monday, School Board President Paul Fisher said the district's legal case hasn't been completed, but that the district has several solid issues on which to base its case. Fisher identified the unfunded mandate defense and the charter law's effect of taking away local control of school districts.

The financial impact a charter school will have on the district has remained the School Board's primary argument against approving the Montessori charter school application.

"We've got excellent schools, and (a charter school) would dilute them," Fisher said. "The worst-case scenario is that you can dilute an excellent school district to mediocrity by continuing to siphon off funds."

The School Board recently approved the wording of an advisory question it will place on the Nov. 4 ballot asking voters if they support the board's decisions regarding the Montessori school. The question will read: "Do you agree with the decision of the Steamboat Springs School Board to deny the application for the proposed Montessori Charter School?"

"We want a better understanding of where the community is (on the issue)," Fisher said. "(The question) isn't functionary at all, it won't do anything but provide information."

Fisher admitted that placing an advisory question on the ballot "isn't typical, but it's not against any rules."

Steamboat Springs Montessori has said the question isn't fair. A fair question would ask voters if they agree with the School Board's decision to break the state charter law and defy an order from the state Board of Education, Montessori board members said recently.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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